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Heat Lightning

by Helen Hull
Persephone book no:

100 101 102

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A Well Full of Leaves
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Heat Lightning

ISBN 9781903155912

Helen Hull was once a well-known American novelist and Heat Lightning, her sixth book, was a Book-of-the-Month Club Selection for April 1932. The plot is simple: Amy Norton comes home for a week’s visit to her hometown in Michigan (the town is unnamed but must owe a lot to Albion, where Helen Hull grew up): ‘Now that she was back in the town of her childhood, standing on a corner across from the village triangle of green, a small pyramid of luggage at her feet, Amy’s one clear thought, over the fluttering of unimportant recognitions, was “Why on earth have I come?”’ Her husband has gone on holiday without her, her two children are at summer camp, and she is hoping to work out why she is unhappy. She looks with detached eyes at every member of the Westover family, all of whom live within striking distance of their old home; and, having been away for so long, is able to observe her female relations with fresh eyes and to see that ‘each of them lived true to her own code, without conflict or rebellion. And I – Amy moved restlessly – I don’t know what my code is.’

Yet, over the course of the sultry summer week, with flashes of lightning never far away, she starts to understand herself better and to have a new insight into the lives of her relations: the matriarchal ‘Madam Westover’ her grandmother; her parents Alfred and Catherine; her brother and sister Ted and Mary, who has just given birth to another child; and her aunt and her two unmarried children. As Amy comes to realise, the Westover family, into which ‘foreigners’ have married, is a microcosm of the larger society, each member with his own code, derived blindly from distant soil.’ The result, which is what Helen Hull is describing, is that ‘the individual has nothing firm upon which he can lean, nor has he even any definite way of life against which he can rebel: he is under the necessity of determining for himself how he shall act and think.’

It is the summer after the Great Crash of 1929 and, as in so many Persephone books, everything happens and nothing happens; however, a book which is simply about family life turns out to be unputdownable. ‘Although Heat Lightning focuses on domestic life,’ writes the American academic Patricia McClelland Miller in her Persephone Preface, ‘it is, at its core, a novel of ideas, even though not all of the book’s readers would have recognised it as such.’ Indeed, the book with which most Persephone readers will compare it is Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks

For more on Heat Lightning, have a look at the Persephone Perspective.


'Memories of the Alamo' 1929, a plain weave roller-printed silk by HR Mallinson & Co.

Picture Caption

1930s photograph of a house in Cassopolis Michigan, probably very like the one in Heat Lightning.

Read What Readers Say

Kate Saunders, ‘The Times’

The elegant Persephone imprint has unearthed an absolute jewel — first published in 1932, and uncannily foreshadowing Jonathan Franzen’s contemporary classic ‘The Corrections’. In the boiling summer after the Great Crash of 1929, Amy Norton steps off a bus in the run-down Midwestern town where her family were once the biggest people around. But now, she sees the signs of decay and imminent disintegration. Hull, who spent her life as an academic and died in 1971, has a Franzen-like instinct for the dynamics of family relationships. Sublime.

Book Word (blogger)

Pacey, rich and thoughtful.

Desperate Reader (blogger)

‘Heat Lightning’ is exactly the sort of book I associate with Persephone (and then I’m constantly surprised by how varied their list is). The preface raises interesting points about the American search for a national identity in the face of a lack of common tradition, and the changing fortunes of ‘domestic’ and ‘feminine’ fiction. When Helen Hull’s novels were described as ‘women’s books’ reviewers meant that they were written on controversial topics from a woman’s point of view. By the 1930s though it became a somewhat more pejorative term, it still is, but really – why should it be?

Categories: America Family Grandmothers Overseas

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