Left in charge of your baby brother while your parents are out for evening when a tornado blows down your house and now it is up to you and your BFF to escape from the rubble and find and rescue your friends and family members? Maybe even drive a police cruiser when the officer is injured? Will you have to live at K-Mart forever? SIGN ME UP!
I first read Ruckman’s story when it was serialized in Cricket magazine in the mid-1980s, a point in my life where escaping from a tornado in my grandmother’s basement was an appealing fantasy, at least until an older cousin informed me that tornadoes were extremely rare in western New York. Killjoy.
So, I was surprised and delighted to find the story just as griping and suspenseful as I remembered it.
The Plot: The book opens with an epigraph in the form of an Associated Press dispatch from June 4, 1980, reporting that seven tornadoes had touched down overnight in Grand Island, Nebraska, killing at least five people and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.
The story is told from the point of view of 12 year old Dan Hatch, who on the morning of June 3rd has typical 12 year old problems on his mind, including resentment of his baby brother, Ryan, for taking up all of his parents’ time and energy, a crush on his friend Arthur Darlington’s older sister, and his mother insisting that Dan and Arthur spend the summer taking arts & crafts classes with his Aunt Goldie.
Dan and Arthur bike out to the state park to go swimming, but the weather unexpectedly turns cold. Returning to Dan’s house, they convince his parents to let Arthur spend the night and the boys spend the night watching TV, at first blissfully unaware of the weird weather going on outside. After scolding Dan for leaving his new bike on the lawn when a hailstorm is predicted, Dan’s father drives out to the family farm to fix a tractor and his mother spends the evening sewing a dress and fussing over Ryan.
Not until 8 o’clock does anyone even notice what is going on outside:
When the first commercial came on, I went to the kitchen for some potato chips. I couldn’t believe what I saw there. The curtains at the kitchen window were blowing straight in. They looked like something a cartoonist might draw.
Even when new report of a tornado warning interrupts Happy Days and the siren sounds, the Hatches aren’t too concerned, as Dan explains his family is used to having to “hit the cellar” every spring and nothing has ever come of it; Arthur’s family, California transplants, have an even more laissez-faire attitude about tornadoes, not even bothering to go to the basement.
Dan’s mother decides to go check on their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Smiley, who is notorious for turning down her hearing aid and may not hear the siren, and leaves Dan and Arthur in charge of the sleeping baby.
When the report mentions a town near his grandparents farm, Dan is concerned enough to try and call his father. And things start to get scary:
Four rings. Then I heard Grandma’s voice.
“Grandma!” I shouted into the phone. “Where have you been? There is a tornado just north of G.I. The siren’s going can you hear it?”
A voice said something, but it sounded so far away.
“Talk louder Grandma! I can’t hear you!”
The voice faded away entirely. I wasn’t even sure it was Grandma’s now.
“There is a tornado coming! Can you hear me?”
Finally there wasn’t anything on the line but the sound of another phone ringing very faintly, as if it were in New York or someplace far away.
The lights start flickering and Arthur complains that the radio isn’t broadcasting any more:
“There’s no radio reception anymore. It just went dead. This guy… He kept saying ‘Tornado alert, tornado alert!’ Then it went dead.”
We rushed back to the living room. The TV was flashing these big letters that filled the screen: CD… CD… CD…
“What’s it mean?” Arthur cried.
“Civil Defense Emergency!” I whirled around “I’m getting Ryan!”
Ruckman does a terrific job building suspense, as the lights go off and Arthur panics and wants to run home to his family, Dan gets his little brother tangled up in his mobile trying to get him out of the crib in the dark and they make it into the basement just in time, as their ears pop and all of the drains in the house make spooky sucking noises.
Huddling together in the basement shower, they hear the sounds of furniture being moved upstairs, and Arthur thinks the storm has passed and Mrs. Hatch has returned home, but Dan knows better: the house is being destroyed above their very heads.
An unknown amount of time passes and the boys have a new crisis to face: the pipes have burst and water is rising around them. They climb out of the shower and Dan looks up to see moonlight and open sky above his head.
Trapped beneath the rubble of the Hatch house, the basement filling with both water and natural gas from broken pipes, the boys try to figure out a way to escape, and are eventually saved by the arrival of Arthur’s sister Stacey, who hoists them through a broken window.
Stacey relates that the Darlingtons’ have been through their own nightmare, since, as predicted, they ignored the tornado warnings:
“Mama tried to get everyone under the big bed, but she and Ronnie and I wouldn’t fit. We had to flatten out on the floor- it was awful! We were lying there, holding each other, Arthur-” her voice broke. “Ronnie Vae got sucked right out the window.”
“I tried to hang on to her, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything but scream.”
“Stacey! Is she all right?”
“She is! It’s a pure miracle! It threw her into the Winegars’ bushes, knocked her right out. Mama thinks that she doesn’t even remember it.”
Arthur is relieved that he was the last of the Darlingtons that was unaccounted for, the rest of his family having been evacuated to the local armory. But Dan has no such reassurance, as they survey the destroyed neighborhood by flashlight, finding no sign of Dan’s mother at Aunt Goldie’s destroyed house.
The kids set off to Mrs. Smiley’s house, but are intercepted by some neighbors, and eventually reunited with Mrs. Hatch, who reports on her own night’s ordeal, having gotten Mrs. Smiley down to the basement and was returning home when the tornado touched down, forcing her back into the house and under Mrs. Smiley’s dining room table. Once the storm passed she was unable to reach the basement under the collapsed house and could get no response from Mrs. Smiley.
In her dazed state, Mrs. Hatch is able to be convinced that she should take Ryan and evacuate to the local K-Mart with the Red Cross, allowing Dan, Arthur and Stacey to return to Mrs. Smiley’s and try to reach her.
Once there, Arthur improvises a ramp down the collapsed stairwell with the indefatigable dining room table, and they creep into the labyrinthine basement, terrified what they might find. At last they find Mrs. Smiley, sound asleep and snoring away on an old sofa.
At last getting her up and her hearing aid back on, they are still unable to convince her of the gravity of the situation, and she remains reluctant to sacrifice her dignity and climb up an old box spring and out the window.
Finally getting Mrs. Smiley on a bus to K-Mart, the three kids are among the very last evacuees, so they catch a ride in a patrol car with an Officer Kelly, and Dan allows himself to worry about his father and grandparents out on the farm:
I was thinking of the farm house, which had been built during the Great Depression, without a basement. The storm cellar was a long way from the back porch, I remembered, and doors were very hard to open.
But Dan has little time to worry, because it turns out that the danger hasn’t passed after all:
What I heard next was this frantic voice on the radio. No badge numbers or ten-fours or anything, just this voice laced with panic: Kelly, get the hell out of there!
Kelly is able to get the car into the ditch on the side of the road, away from the direct path of the oncoming tornado, but the windshield is blown in, injuring his eye. When the funnel passes, Dan gets to put his tractor-driving skills to use, proud to be able to drive the car to the police station.
The kids spend the night in an empty cell of the county jail, worrying about missing friends and family and struggling with guilty consciences and kid-logic (Arthur worries that he accidentally cursed the town with tornadoes when an Authentic Indian Craft at Aunt Goldie’s had gone awry; Dan vows never to let anyone know that he had briefly considered leaving his brother asleep in his crib before going to the basement).
The next day a kindly prison matron takes the Darlington kids to the armory to reunite with their parents, but is unable to pass through the piles of rubble blocking the route to K-Mart; over her protests, Dan jumps out of the car and heads to K-Mart on foot, determined to find his mother and brother. But when he finally arrives, he finds that it has been converted to a National Guard post, and all of the civilians have been moved yet again, now scattered to dozens of smaller shelters.
Heading back towards the main drag, through pure luck Dan encounters his father, who has been driving around all night searching for them. Together the family returns to their destroyed home, and overcome with emotion, their parents say that they’ll be living on the farm (which escaped all disaster) for the foreseeable future.
Ruckman based her story on her own experience in the 1980 Grand Island tornado outbreak, and her first-hand knowledge shines through every chapter, as she details the realities of the storm and the aftermath, as the town begins to rebuild. The conclusion is very emotional, as a year later Dan confirms his worst suspicions that the beloved family cat did not make it through the storm; Mrs. Smiley also doesn’t live to see the 1-year anniversary of the storm, peacefully dying in her sleep some months afterward.
There is also the weird fate of the missing Aunt Goldie, rescued from the ruins of the bowling alley after the storm, but with amnesia: she comes to several days later, apparently having been shacked up at a motel in the next state with the trucker who picked up on the side of the road.
But Ruckman also has a good eye for a kid’s sense of humor: Dan briefly considers that they might have to live at K-Mart and decides that wouldn’t be so bad, since they have arcade games in the vestibule; Ronnie Vae is seemingly traumatized into muteness after getting sucked out the window, until she’s sent to live with her cousins in California: “They say she wouldn’t shut up once she got there.”
Sign It Was Written In 1980 Department:
“You won’t be forgotten,” promised Jimmy Carter, speaking from a foundation in the midst of our Sand Crane Dr. rubble.
An Annoying Autobiographical Pause Department: DUDE, WHAT IS IT WITH K-MART??? During the 2010 NYC tornado strikes I was shopping at K-Mart, blissfully unaware of anything going on outside until I emerged into a tangle of downed trees and powerlines. So, in the event of a natural disaster, go to K-Mart. Those things are apparently built like bunkers.