By Ruth Wind
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication Date: May 2000
Five Plus Stars (A Janga All-time Top 100 Book)
I’ve been writing like a madwoman for the past several days, trying to meet a deadline. My read-soon TBR shelf is overflowing with books I really want to read, including some that I have been eagerly awaiting for months. But when I’m under pressure, I tend to reach for a well-worn favorite on my keeper shelf. This week I reached for Ruth Wind’s In the Midnight Rain, a book I’ve read at least a half dozen times. I fell in love with it all over again, as I have each time I’ve read it.
Small town books are big these days, and I’m a fan. But even when I think the small towns are great, I stay at one remove from most of them. They are interesting, amusing, appealing, or some combination thereof, but rarely does one touch my heart with a mix of knowing and wonder. Pine Bend, the small East Texas town that serves as the setting for In the Midnight Rain does exactly that. It’s a slow-paced, Southern town filled with long memories, secrets, old and new, and loyalties as deeply rooted as a bur oak tree.
Ellie Connor is a stranger to Pine Bend, a stranger who is bringing her own secret to this place. Ellie has found success as a biographer of musicians, and her overt reason for coming to town is to research the subject of her next book, Mabel Beauvais, a gifted blues singer who mysteriously disappeared four decades ago just as she was about to “get all the fame and fortune every musician dreamed of.” But Ellie has another reason for visiting Pine Bend. She never knew her parents. Her mother died when she was two, and the grandmother who nurtured her to adulthood knows nothing about Ellie’s father except that Ellie’s mother, Diane, sent a postcard from Pine Bend shortly before her pregnancy. Ellie’s father may be a resident of the town.
Ellie has been offered the use of a guest house on the Fox River estate, the property of Dr. Laurence Reynard, whom she became acquainted with through a blues newsgroup and subsequent emails. Neither of them gets what was expected when the invitation was extended and accepted. Ellie knows Blue Reynard is dangerous to her from the minute she sees him, before she learns that he has the reputation of a heartbreaker. But who can resist him? He’s a handsome, intelligent, wealthy blues aficionado who raises orchids. And he reminds her of Jimi Hendrix music! He’s also lost and needy and anesthetizing his pain with the best Kentucky bourbon. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places,” Hemingway wrote. ITMR is the story of Ellie and Blue finding the strength to mend their broken places so that they can build a future together.
But this novel is not just a romance. It is also the story of a town and its people, a story of mysteries that must be solved, lessons that must be learned. The secondary characters are not paper dolls. They are real people with histories and hurts and humor. There is much brokenness in this story and much need for earned strength. And beneath it all is the beat of the blues with all its passion, pain, pity, and poetry.
There is poetry too in the prose of Ruth Wind (Barbara Samuel/Barbara O’Neal), a lyricism that sings with beauty and leaves me sighing twice—once with joy and once from envy. When I hear friends say they don’t like description in their fiction, I want to hand them a passage from this book to prove that they’ve failed to understand what power description can have. Wind had me from the prologue:
What she liked best was hearing the blues. The music sailed down the channel made by the river, ghostly guitar and haunted harmonica, even the hint of a man’s ragged voice. It came from Hopkins’ juke joint, upriver a mile or two on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River, and spilled with yellow light and blue cigarette smoke into a forest as dark as sin, as warm as a lover’s mouth. It floated toward her over the stillness hanging above the water. Sometimes she imagined they were playing it just for her.
Or this passage that makes us see Blue and his friend Marcus Williams through Ellie’s eyes:
The black man was the older of the pair, maybe in his mid-forties or a little more. Judging by the length of his legs, propped on the porch railing, he was tall, and his skin was the color of polished pecan. A neatly trimmed goatee with a few betraying curls of white framed a serious mouth. His eyes were large and still.
Ellie could imagine this face behind the notes Reynard had written.
But it was the other man who snared her attention. Darkness lay in the hollows below slashes of cheekbone, and along the fine line of his jaw; peered out from large eyes of a color impossible to determine in the low light. Her mind catalogued other details, his bare feet and worn jeans, the shadow of unshaved beard. His hair was thick and long, of indeterminate color. A skinny white cat sat serenely at his ankle.
Once I would have hesitated to write this review because I would have felt as if I were gloating that I had read ITMR and you might not be able to locate a copy. But the wonder of ebooks is upon us. You can buy the ebook from Amazon or Smashwords today. And, trust me, even if you don’t have an ereader, it’s worth it to read this one on your computer. I’ve already bought my ebook. My print copy is falling to pieces from all the rereading.