A Place Called Rainwater
A Place Called Rainwater is the second in the Jones family series that began with The Edge of Town and tells the story of Jill, youngest of the Jones clan from Fertile, Missouri. Jill has come to Rainwater to help her widowed aunt Justine, whose “creeping paralysis” is gradually eroding her ability to manage the rooming house she has owned for twenty years.
Rainwater is an oil boomtown, so business is thriving; there are also four times more men than women living there. Jill has been in town for several weeks when, returning to the rooming house from a merchants’ meeting, she’s grabbed by a bunch of rowdies wanting her to bestow a kiss on the winner of an arm-wrestling match. Enter Thad Taylor, old family friend and the object of Jill’s childhood infatuation, who manages to aggravate Jill with his bossiness while helping disentangle her from her overzealous admirers.
Thad was working in Tulsa with Jill’s older brother, Joe, when the missive from back home arrived telling of Jill’s trip to Rainwater and asking them to check in on her. Thad is pleasantly surprised by what a few years can do to change the skinny teenager he once teased in older-brother fashion into the lovely and mature Jill. She doesn’t quite trust that a man as handsome and charming as Thad Taylor could really be interested in her, which throws the occasional monkey wrench into Thad’s plans to woo her.
Before Joe and his friend Blue arrive, Jill and Thad discover a woman’s severed hand while out walking along a country road, and the sheriff and coroner determine that she was not only murdered but her body was horribly brutalized. She is finally identified as one of the many mistresses coming and going from the home of local oil baron, Hunter Westfall. She had suddenly packed up and left his home while he was away at the merchants’ meeting, but there were no witnesses who saw where she went or with whom.
The final characters at the center of this story are: Lloyd Madison, a seemingly quiet lawyer with a bloodred facial birthmark (the “mark of the devil”); Radna Beau, the part Cherokee, part African-American woman who is a long-term friend and employee of Justine’s and becomes the object of Blue’s romantic designs; and Laura Hopper, a beautiful widow with a small daughter whose husband’s only redeeming act was to get himself conveniently killed, and who draws the interest of Hunter Westfall. The story basically revolves around the investigation into the woman’s murder (with a massive oil fire thrown in) while romance blooms between the three couples, Justine continues to decline, and Lloyd continues his evil machinations under the guise of loftier aims.
A Place Called Rainwater is a pleasant, if typical, Garlock tale, but there’s nothing really new here that we haven’t seen many times before from Ms. Garlock. There is never really any question who the villain of the piece is, and his character is neither subtle nor nuanced. The romances evolve at a small-town pace, and are pleasing, if not particularly memorable. As Jill and Thad grew up together within a small community amongst families who shared many core values, they have a common heritage, and it’s understandable that they’d be drawn to each other. But there’s no real spark in their story, no telling moment when, suddenly, these two characters feel the thrumming in their blood that alerts them they have met their partner in passion as well as life. The conflict that keeps them apart for much of the story, Jill’s mistrust in Thad’s constancy, is too much of a one-trick pony that quickly loses its entertainment value. The love story between Radna and Blue was far more interesting, but that might be because there was a hint of mystery about these two, a subtle undertone that suggested they weren’t always as good as they ought to be.
What Garlock does do well is to show how a group of unrelated people can become a “family” in the finest sense of that word when they start reaching out to help each other, sharing dreams and easing each others’ burdens. Her characters are generally farmers and ranchers and small business owners (i.e., ordinary folk), and she almost always adds ethnic diversity (Blue is also Native American) in a way that is uplifting, but never overly sentimental or patronizing.
All in all, this makes for a comfortable read for those who enjoy a glimpse of an earlier America, especially the kind of camaraderie, sense of community and moral surety that might be found in a booming small town like Rainwater, Oklahoma. The good guys (and gals) might as well be wearing white hats, they’re so easily identifiable – salt of the earth folks who are always willing to lend a helping hand and stand up for what is right. It’s a story that will please the reader searching for familiar comfort and few surprises; not a bad story, but not a memorable one either. For those readers looking for something they haven’t read before or in search of characters that are layered with interesting complexity, A Place Called Rainwater is sure to leave you a bit dissatisfied.