This is a narrative measured out in minutes. It is precisely and, as the Pulitzer board wrote in their commendation, meticulously reconstructed. Keller traces the minutes leading up to the tornado’s destruction of parts of a town, and also the minutes of its immediate aftermath. In the course of this account she details the experiences of a host of characters.
The piece is compelling in part because of the mix of cool detachment and drama that Keller achieves. Throughout, she presses a theme of human fragility in the face of the tornado’s power: "But those official-sounding causes of death, announced by Bernard at the coroner’s inquest May 27 at the LaSalle County Courthouse, hardly hint at what actually happens to human bodies when crushed by a two-story building: the brutality, the blunt and unimaginable violence of hundreds of tons of stone and wood and concrete collapsing upon fragile frames and soft flesh. There were shattered bones and severed arteries and fractured skulls and lacerated organs and one transection of the brainstem—decapitation."
We like the final section: Keller visits various survivors in the months after their rescues; we like the writing’s movement from one sub-section to the next. The first line of each mini-chapter makes a nice narrative lead.
An editorial footnote: We appreciated the parenthetical phrase in the following sentence: "There was only time, if one is inclined to think that way, for the freeing of eight souls to continue their journeys elsewhere." We find fewer and fewer such nods these days to readers’ diversity of belief (the "if one is inclined to think that way"). Sometimes it seems as if journalists increasingly report certain mainstream beliefs as fact.
Read “A Wicked Wind,” by Julia Keller