Skies can get awfully big in America, they can make you feel pretty small. I’ll never forget the sight that greeted me when I stepped off the Greyhound bus at a rest-stop somewhere in Arizona on my cross-country ride in 1978 from New York to Albuquerque. In the middle of the desert, in the early hours around dawn, I looked out and looked up, and reeled at the beauty and immensity of that sky stretching above and around me, so many times more vast than even the vastness of the landscape beneath my feet.
Big, tall skies that tower over and often threaten the low, open Kentucky horizons and the people living on them below dominate this debut graphic novel from Danica Novgorodoff. She paints the clouds, winds and storms in billowing, churning watercolour swathes, at times filling one large panel or billowing out beyond the page’s edge.
Oldham County is farming, horse-racing and tornado country and home to Ursa Crain, ("ursa" as in Latin for bear), the lone, parentless, size-conscious female member of the local fire brigade, where she has to cope with co-workers like her infuriating, pushy kid brother Grim, her only family now, ("Maybe a BIG girl like you shoulda taken a etiquette class at your two-bit college.") and unwanted advances from lascivious Alva. In the gathering storm, when lightning strikes a stable and starts a fire, Ursa and her fellow firefighters are called to put out the blaze and investigate inside, because Rafael, or Rafi, a 17-year old illegal Mexican teenage horseman who does nightwatch duty for the horses may still be inside. Little do they know that Rafi has also secretly set up home in the hayloft.
Earlier, Rafi’s precious family photo catching light in the barn sparks an extended flashback revealing his close-knit family in Mexico and the high price he paid for secret passage into the USA. Reflecting Rafi’s psychological perspective and faith, Novgorodoff adds some subjective, magic realist touches, from the treacherous wolf-headed people-smugglers and U.S. immigration officers riding pigs to a near-death visit to the Pearly Gates, jumping over them to enter the heaven called America, and his rescue by the Hagrid-like San Cristobel or Saint Christopher, "Warden of Wanderers."
In a memorable tense sequence between the Crain siblings within the burning barn, Ursa, hurt and angry at her brother, puts Grim in grave danger by locking him inside. The next moment, the towering, stern figure of "Saint Chris" confronts her. Grim breaks out but, whatever his suspicions of his sister, blames "the Mexican" for trapping him. They are unaware that Rafi is already outside, having got the thoroughbred racehorses to safety. Rafi is only found later by his saviour Ursa, who appears to him at first like an angel, soon after as a Madonna, then an Aztec. Terrified, on the run, Rafi eventually learns to trust Ursa. In one telling panel, Ursa, whose daily experiences of tragedy have made her reject her religious upbringing, seems to pray that Rafi escapes and survives.
Novgorodoff employs some interesting approaches. On occasion, she draws movement within the same panel, for example in one showing Rafi, slammed high against the barn wall by the tornado, in transparent outline as well as the moment later when his fully painted body has slid down to the ground. In another panel, an elderly storekeeper wipes a counter, arms crossed and see-through. Similiarly, Ursa’s seeing double or multiple images in the same panel suggests her heightened emotions, notably anger, for instance at Grim or at Alva for calling her a "fat ass."
Novgorodoff cleverly solves the graphic representation of the sound of static by drawing white noise filling balloons as Ursa switches stations or reception is broken up by a twister. She also sneaks in verbal cues, such as at one point the partially viewed names on the backs of the firefighters’ coats aptly spelling out "rage" (based on the name ‘Detherage") and "(c)rain." Just like a Slow Storm, there’s a brooding atmosphere and mounting intensity throughout Novgorodoff’s subtle, refreshingly different drama, as she shows how these two people from very different worlds and worldviews, both adrift, with secrets to hide, neither sure of their place in life, build a bond of understanding and come to recognise the sensitivity and hope in each other.