Heat Lightning by Helen R. Hull

Dear Reader:

I’m catching up on posting about several books I’ve finished in the past week.  One of my favorites was #152)  Heat Lightning by Helen R. Hull (hard copy, library).  I heard about Hull from Book Snob who posted her review of this book here.


I’ll try to talk about some points that are a bit different from Rachel.  First, I LOVED this book.  It is the story of the Westover family in (I think) an unnamed small town – the description (and Hull’s background) suggest that the town is somewhere in the midwestern United States.  Amy, the book’s narrator, is a grown woman with a husband (Geoffrey) and two children (Buff and Bob) returning to her large and powerful (within the town) family.  Her sister Mary has just given birth, but this is presumably coincidental – Amy’s visit coincides with her husband’s (supposed) fishing trip and her children’s summer camps.

In reality, Amy is at a loss, unsure about her marriage and her life.  She is searching for answers, trying to figure out what living a good life means and how to have (or whether to have) a good relationship with Geoff.  She is quickly pulled into the whirl of crises enveloping her sprawling family and as she stays on the periphery of each, she watches those she respects and ponders how they have put together their lives, how they relate to those close to them, and tries to gather their wisdom.  She most frequently does this with her Grandmother Westover, a creative, energetic, and opinionated widow with little fear of standing up to her sons and daughters.

This book is beautifully written, drawing you through the plot, and causing the reader to identify strongly with Amy and (some of) her family.  Though the book, written in 1932, is a “quiet” one, it addresses, head-on, a surprising array of issues, including: infidelity; interracial, illegitimate birth; homosexuality; premarital sex; and prejudice.  As I commented on Rachel’s post about the book, Hull, like Elizabeth Bowen and Dorothy Whipple, is an astute student of human relationship with amazing ability to portray the intricacies of domestic relationship.  These are not skills that have historically been greatly valued since this has been seen as the “woman’s sphere” and thus, all these authors have been neglected.  But I find it hard to argue that portrayals of politics and war are necessarily more important or more likely to lead to important literature than portrayals of family and relationship.

To give you a sample of some of her writing, here is a bit: “Catherine sat beside him, her shoulder touching his.  He leans into her, thought Amy, only he’s not supine, like Henry.  Mother’s too clever to let him fall over.  Or even to let him know he leans.  Queer, how her own desperate need of light seemed to throw such brilliance over the affairs of the members of her family.  She carried her need like a many-batteried pocket spotlight, illuminating emotional corners in other people, but she walked in darkness behind it.  Her wrist wouldn’t bend to turn it on herself.” (p. 56)

This extract illustrates how Hull portrays Amy’s search, turning to her grandma, mother (Catherine), and father to see how they do things.  It is almost as if Amy has coasted through, sure of herself as she moved beyond the family, found a husband, had children, but now she’s thrown, uncertain, and newly aware that others in her family have had to grapple with the challenges that she faces and learned to overcome them in their way.  You can see too the wonderful metaphors Hull uses to illustrate her deeper meaning and leave you savoring her point and deepening your own understanding.

While not well known, Hull was a prolific writer quite popular in her day.  You can see a list of many, if not all, of her books here.  At the end of her post, Rachel called for a Helen R. Hull revival (Update: and she noted in her comment below that Persephone Books plans to republish some of Hull’s work).  I’m joining her in this, how about you?

Happy Reading, Ruby



  1. What a brilliant review – I loved how you described Amy being on the periphery, watching how others have made their decisions and seeing what wisdom she can gain from that. It’s like we never stop being children, looking to be led.

    It’s a shame that Helen Hull has fallen so by the wayside…hopefully when Persephone republish her they will trigger a mini revival!

    • Hi: Thanks for your kind words, they mean a lot, especially since I love the quality of your posts. That is exciting that Persephone is going to republish her. I’m tempted to buy the whole Persephone list – maybe after my 20 book pledge expires in July 2012. All the best, Ruby


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