Second-day disaster stories, or eighth-day disaster stories, often merely tote up possessions damaged and lives lost. Not so with “The Answers in the Wind,” in which Washington Post reporter Tamara Jones details the aftermath of the tornado that obliterated Greensburg, Kansas, earlier this year.
The Deighton family excavates belongings from the debris, checks in with neighbors, and goes shopping for the skeleton possessions of daily life—underwear, shampoo, a hairbrush. But the story takes an unusual tack in focusing on grandmother Arlene, who is in the early stages of dementia. She sometimes doesn’t remember that she has lost everything, dwelling instead on her husband’s death last year.
By zeroing in on lives disrupted, Jones goes beyond the story of one storm to sketch the larger consequences of catastrophe. In the hands of another writer, the many characters might have been too many. But Jones grounds these people through psychological insight (Mike is “the authority figure,” his sister Lori “the fixer”) and tart dialogue (“They don’t want you in that rubble,” Arlene tells Ora Ellen. “I haven’t fell yet,” her friend replies).
Jones navigates skillfully between talk of assisted living and meditations on the meaning of small things—retrieved objects that are the talismans of a family legacy. She spins a lyrical line, with a smashed household looking like “an apocalyptic flea market” and a butterfly as “a flash of color in this sepia-toned moonscape.” The language goes far enough out on a limb that some readers might hear a branch or two creaking. Ultimately, though, the piece rises above the day-after-disaster genre, becoming a poetic reflection on loss and memory.
Read “The Answers in the Wind,” by Tamara Jones