The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is the wind of change…
Background: Scholastic’s Sunfire series is a cautionary tale about judging a YA Romance by its cover. Lurking behind the overheated cover art and melodramatic taglines are some of the best stories and most interesting heroines of the genre.
Sort of a historical counterpart of Scholastic’s Wildfire Romances, the series was authored by a handful of Scholastic regulars, such as Vivian Schurfranz and Jane Claypool Miner, and are formulaic, but reliably consistent in quality.
Each volume features a feisty (sometimes anachronistically so) 14-to-17 year old heroine facing an American historical crisis and the choice of two (or more) suitors. Spoilers: she’ll choose the one with the more progressive ideas about women’s rights.
While usually interesting and well-written, Sunfires are formulaic, dealing with either a spunky working-class heroine who Makes It On Her Own or a spoiled rich girl who Learns To Stand On Her Own Two Feet. Sunfires are also noted for the alarming mortality rate for parents: if the heroine isn’t at least a half-orphan when the book opens, you can bet she will be by the end of chapter two.
The earliest books in the series focus on a general historical era, such as World War I (Laura) or the Oregon Trail (Amanda), but the later volumes use specific historic events as a backdrop, often dramatic disasters such as the Johnstown Flood (Jennie) or the San Francisco earthquake (Nora).
Which brings us to this week’s (hurricane-) seasonally appropriate title…
The Plot: Texas belle Darcy Dunlop is preparing for her 16th birthday party in September of 1900, and she is both frazzled and petulant about having to change her plans from a beach party to an indoor dance because her over-protective widower father is obsessed with monitoring the falling barometer and a chance of a storm.
Darcy’s bestie, Angela Morton, and her dizzy cousin Rose commiserate, and through some laboriously expository dialogue, we learn both that Darcy’s mother died in a yellow fever epidemic and that the island of Galveston is hurricane-crazy:
“The men here in Galveston only know two things to talk about- weather and building a sea-wall along the gulf!”
We also learn that Darcy has a secret crush on Angela’s visiting “Yankee” cousin, Michael, who had finished engineering school at a prodigiously young age and is considering joining his Uncle’s construction firm.
The book suffers from over-population, as the reader also has to keep track of Darcy’s shipping magnate father, Captain Dunlop; her childhood friend (and Michael’s romantic rival), Alex Turner; Alex’s vicious busy-body mother, who has been butting in more than usual since Mrs. Dunlop’s death; Peter and Hildy, the Dunlops’ devoted servants; and both Angela and Rose’s respective families.
Darcy is granted a break from party preparations to go down to the beach to fly kites with Angela and Michael, despite the fact that Mrs. Turner makes it plain that she does not approve:
“Running after that Yankee masher like every other addlepated nitwit in town. I thought better of you, Darcy, I really did.”
Darcy wilted inside her corsetless dress, still trembling from the disapproval in Mrs. Turner’s eyes and Alex’s fury. Would her mother have thought her a loose woman to go kite flying without a corset?
However, the next morning Darcy realizes that she has forgotten something even more important than her corset:
“Dance programs!” she cried, turning to Hildy. “I never for even one moment thought about dance programs.”
“Neither did I,” she admitted. “That is until I woke up at dawn in a cold sweat about them.”
“But what can we do? We can’t have a dance without programs. It’s unheard of. And how would you know who to dance with next?”
Luckily Hildy has the solution, sending Darcy and Angela downtown to the Strand shopping district to buy some fancy paper and spend the afternoon using their ladylike skills of calligraphy and watercolor to make the programs by hand. However (foreshadowing!) it is a decision that will have serious consequences.
Darcy’s party is a success, Michael and Alex manage to not murder each other, and Michael even confesses he returns Darcy’s affections. However, a note of melancholy is injected when he tells her that he has decided not to stay on in Galveston, as it doesn’t really inspire creativity in engineering: his uncle is a builder, not an engineer, and is content to continue building fabulous mansions for the wealthy.
While Darcy noted the odd conditions in the gulf the night of her party, by the next morning the predicted hurricane is reported to have shifted to the east, and despite the rain, Darcy accompanies her friends to the beach. However, when the head of the Weather Bureau comes barreling onto the scene shouting warning of an approaching storm, they double back and head for home. Those nosy Turners are waiting for them, demanding that Darcy seek shelter at their house on higher ground, but Darcy isn’t having it, especially when she learns that Rose has gone to help batten down the local orphanage.
What’s more, Angela finds that her mother has gone down to the Strand to do the shopping that Angela had blown off to make dance programs. Darcy and Michael head downtown to bring the wayward relatives home, and become trapped in a restaurant when the storm makes landfall.
Sunfire authors don’t usually skimp on harrowing descriptions of disaster, but Darcy and Michael’s ordeal during the storm is more confusing than it is horrific. Narrowly avoiding being swept out to sea as the low-lying area floods, they are first trapped in a pile of debris and then torn loose by the storm surge, and then become lodged in grove of salt cedar trees.
Miraculously, they survive the night, and make their way to the Dunlop home the next day to find it badly damaged, and both Rose and the Captain missing.
While casualties are first estimated at about 500, as the days pass that number will grow to an estimated 6,000. Rose is eventually found, having rescued an infant from a collapsed house, she becomes devoted to his care. Darcy must rise to the occasion to help repair the family home and fight off looters; she is devastated to learn that Angela’s mother was killed in the storm and Angela blames Darcy for her death because of the whole dance card-situation.
Days pass with no sign of Captain Dunlop, and they get word that city officials are going to begin mass burials at sea of the unidentified victims. This is the one point that the book rises to the historical horrors typical of the series, which makes no bones about how death and destruction lurk around every corner in Olden Times:
She had been curious about the doctor’s orders to her and Rose that they must not even look at the beach. Later, when she read the paper, she wished she hadn’t learned what he was protecting them from. Most of the seven hundred bodies towed out for sea burial had returned with the morning tide. All that day they had been burning the corpses or burying them where they lay.
However, late one night Darcy receives word that an unidentified comatose man was found in the wreckage of her father’s ship- could it be…?
It is. Darcy and Peter bring the captain back home and she dutifully nurses him back to health. When he regains his strength Mrs. Turner pays a visit, informing the Captain that Darcy was out all night with that Yankee Michael (unchaperoned!) and she is clearly turning into a loose strumpet. The Turners are clearing out for Houston, and demand to take Darcy with them, where Darcy will be put under ‘a strong hand’.
When her father lets her choose whether to go to Houston or remain on the island, Darcy declares herself a Galvestonian for life and Mrs. Turner goes off in a huff, first demanding that Darcy terminate her friendship with Alex.
The Captain and Hildy are all “good riddance”:
“That woman has a mind like a cesspool.”
“And a mouth to match,” Darcy’s father added. “I forbid you to take her seriously.”
And finally, Michael announces that he is going to stay in Galveston after all, since the city will need a whole bunch of engineering to finally build that sea-wall they keep talking about!
Fanboy Department: The Captain is super-excited to meet his hero:
“Clara Barton herself?” the captain asked in amazement.
“In the flesh,” Michael reported.
“I’ve heard about Clarissa Barton all my life. My mother idolized her. She was a schoolteacher for years before she became a nurse during the Civil War, and founded the American Red Cross ages ago. How old is she anyway?”