Kathryn Schwille has written a riveting debut novel that brilliantly juxtaposes recovery efforts in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion with the daily challenges facing the residents of a small East Texas town who literally pick up the pieces. What Luck, This Life illuminates life in small-town America, capturing perfectly the cadence of people too often relegated to one-dimensional caricatures. Kathryn paints a word picture of the people and places in fictional Kiser, Texas, so authentic and affecting that both are instantly relatable.
She also captures the real-life horror of the shuttle disaster and the macabre scavenger hunt that ensued to reclaim the parts, human and otherwise, strewn across the landscape. Down a dirt road in a pasture, a young boy, whose intuitive skills render him strange and different to the townsfolk, spots an astronaut’s body stuck in a tree, with “no foot at the end of the leg.” His dad (separated from the boy’s mother after revealing that he’s gay) uses a bucket truck to bring it down, finding the body’s smell “sharp, but not yet foul…. The crows had been on him; their droppings on his chest.” At an elderly black man’s home, a female astronaut’s severed hand is found in a backyard woodpile. Across town, the police chief tells NASA—which asserts no bodies will be found because they would have burned up—that “a man found a leg out on 621…. What do you want him to do, put it in a 4X4 and bring it to you?”
The recovery efforts become a tantalizing backdrop to the human drama already unfolding for the working class residents of Kiser, “a dinky, third fiddle town near the Sabine River, a rank and slither-filled water that keeps Texas apart from Louisiana.” Schwille uses time fluidly, easily shifting back and forth through years, months, even days, to underscore how decisions made—or delayed—mold and change lives.
The characters reflect a diversity of small-town life that’s refreshing. Some are likable; some not. But their voices and experiences shine with authenticity. They tackle the myriad problems we all know so well, and of which small towns are not immune—domestic violence, drug abuse, depression, suicide, illness, love, divorce, death.
What Luck, This Life is enhanced by Schwille’s keen observation skills, honed during her years as a journalist. That skill shows in her beautifully detailed descriptions that bring the East Texas landscape to life. Yet it is her wordsmanship, and the delightful lyricism of her prose, that make the novel special. “Pine warbler opens song…a one-note trill that goads aside the shroud of dawn. She perches on a tulip tree that’s uncommon in this forest, its life a chance of brawny wind from far-off meadow… At tip of crown, a tiny bulge of someday leaf protrudes toward winter’s day, though limbs still hold dried cups of spent samaras—dead leaves pointing skyward, spoils of hope. Where warbler sings, a branch is broken, and down below, another: jagged rips that came yesterday, that came with shake and roar…. Drunk with pleasure at morning mist, roots register all landings – this weight tiny, that one big.”
At every juncture, What Luck is quietly, almost stealthily, thought-provoking and contemplative. One character laments the nature of death and “the forces at play within us,” and declares “what do any of us know about how the end truly comes about.” It is a wonderment and mystery we can all recognize.
This is a debut novel to treasure and to ponder. Readers will find themselves returning again and again to the people and places in Kiser, Texas, for the truths and wisdom they reveal about and to all of us.
Fannie Flono, retired associate editor of The Charlotte Observer, is an award-winning journalist and author of Thriving in the Shadows: The Black Experience In Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
Kathryn Schwille reads from What Luck, This Life at, Thursday, September 20, 7 to 8:30 pm.