Book Review: “Where the Rainbow Touches the Ground” by John Henderson Miller

I picked up “Where the Rainbow Touches the Ground” on the second floor of Poor Richard’s books in Kentucky. I went with my family the first time I visited the states after moving to South Korea. The first floor was filled with new books and others set or written by people in Kentucky. The second floor was dimly lit and blanketed in several layers of dust. Old books lined the shelves from worn but loved hard backs to pulp and dime store paper backs. At first I filled my arms but then remembered I’d have to trudge back to South Korea weighed down by whatever I bought and slowly put them all back. On my way out, feeling the pressure of the dust on my allergy prone sinus’s I spotted a well worn stained blue hard back novel with a golden engraved stamp on its spine. Out of curiosity I flipped the book open to read the poem at the beginning of the book;

For ages the story has often been told

That treasures of priceless and glittering gold,

When eagerly sought for, are sure to be found

Where the beautiful rainbow touches the ground.

But seek with such hope as each one may possess,

The true seekers all have at last to confess,

The identical spot has seldom been found

Where the beautiful rainbow touches the ground.

and then the dedication-

This book is dedicated to all who seek to reach the foot of the rainbow

I was charmed and decided this book, this single one would be worth carrying back to Korea. The book is over 100 years old, from 1906 and when I went to research it there’s not really much about it online. No description but:

The book is about early Kansas life and the cyclones common to the area.

to be found on Amazon and very little else said about the book. So the only true way to find out what it was about was to read it. It took awhile to get around to but I’m glad I finally did. Especially after being so disgruntled with the last book I read. It was the perfect palate cleanser.

But first let’s set something straight. The book isn’t set in Kansas as whoever wrote the Amazon descriptor said. I don’t know where they got Kansas from but it tripped me up when I went to put it into the Goodreads database and I truly hope I can get that fixed. I should’ve gone with my gut because on the first page it says right where it’s set: Selvira, Missouri.

I can only assume that someone thought it was set in Kansas because The Wizard of Oz made Kansas synonymous with cyclones despite the fact the United States had a whole “alley” worth of states that are susceptible to cyclones/tornadoes.  (The Wizard of Oz was published 6 years prior to the book we’re focusing on at the moment.)

Where the Rainbow Touches the Ground follows a family, the Patterson’s, and the people around them. It starts first with Mirandy Patterson and her daughter Florilda Catherine Patterson trying to figure out which neighbor to borrow what from and how much of each in order to make dinner so the family won’t starve when Bobbett Patterson makes his way home.  His first introduction made me quite nervous and set off some alarms.

“A shuffling noise, scarcely loud enough to be recognized as approaching footsteps, struck the woman’s ear. With an anxious look on her face, she whispered, “Children run out and play in the garden, and stay there till I tell you to come in.”

Many books use this sort of introduction to introduce an abusive figure to the story, usually a harsh and heavy handed father figure.

An awkward, slouching man of thirty-five or forty came shambling into the room. The marks of intemperance were plainly stamped on his features. For a wonder the man was sober. This was the first time in many months that he had come home in this condition.

And just like that the concern dissipated as Bobbett comes home from an awful experience with cyclone with a sore throat to ask his wife—who seems to know all sorts of “hocus pocus” and home cures to anything and everything that might ail someone—how to cure it. She suggests he ties a sock around his neck and goes to bed.  And this is where John Henderson Miller really starts to let us know just what kind of story we’re in for and just the type of person Bobbett is.

“Mirandy, I haven’t a sock to my name.”

“Haven’t nary sock? What become of the last pair I mended up for you? They was your last sure enough.”

“A cyclone blowed them off. I was over at Hunansville yesterday. About sundown a cyclone struck the town and the place was almost teetotally destroyed. I was blowed up ever and ever so high, and it blowed my socks off too.”

“(…) But how does it come that you have your shoes on now? (…)”

“(…) It blowed my shoes off too, but after my socks were done gone the cyclone gave another twist or two, and when I came down and lit I found it had blowed a new pair of shoes onto my feet and laced up the strings and tied them in a double knot.”

Throughout the novel we learn that Bobbett likes to tell stories and the people around him, when he’s sober, like to hear him tell these tall tales or “exaggerations”, and as a reader it’s interesting to try and parse exactly what he tells is true from what’s been embellished. All of this though is put in motion by the cyclone in Hunansville which has brought Bobbett a new fortune.

“I was blowed away up in the air by the cyclone, and as I was coming down a man passed me going up. He threw out his hand and caught hold of my hand and held it for a fraction of an instant. We were both in too much of a hurry to exchange cards, and I hesitated about speaking first because we had never been introduced. So I didn’t learn who he was. He acted as if he had an engagement further up and was in a hurry to get there on time, and I came down as fast as I could to see what damage the storm had done in the town. (…) I found I had this roll of money in my right hand. It evidently belongs to the man who went up as I came down.

Now think about that for a second. Mull it over. You survive an insane tornado where you got lifted up and spun around to the point all things seemed topsy turvey and you even lost your last pair of socks. You’ve been a no-account deadbeat drunkard whose left their family of a spouse, daughter and two twin boys to fend for themselves for quite a long time and the cyclone spits you out after seeping your addiction from you so you have no interest in a drop of drink and a roll of money in your hand that isn’t yours and what do you do? Write that in the comments below. I’ll put a picture of a rainbow here so you know where you left off reading.

Welcome back

Thought about it did you? Well the first thing Bobbett does with it is head to the bank and put it in an account with interest and sets himself up as the trustee and puts out cryptic advertisements in various papers to try and find the right owner and doesn’t touch it and his good deed and stories, whether believed or not, earns him the job of janitor for the bank. His first job in a long time that he’s more than delighted to do.

It opens up this compelling and interwoven narrative within the cyclone, how much of what Bobbett has related is true and how much is embellished?  How many lives and changes are caused by this cyclone and how do they weave in with Bobbett and his newfound path and sobriety? How many things that had been collecting dust left behind because of unfulfilled promises were set in motion when the cyclone shook things up?

While I absolutely adored Bobbett’s tall tales, I also quite enjoyed his wife’s all knowing gossip. Mirandy had some of the best lines that stuck out.

“I knew a woman once who made her husband inhale the fumes of burning brimstone when he had the sore throat. She said she was getting him used to it, sort of preparing him for the here-after. “

She’s also quite full of witty shade.

“It’s a wonder the outside of his head don’t fall into the cavity where his brains ought to be. “

There is also always a concern when reading old books that have not aged well. Either with terminology or treatment of characters. In many cases there are obvious things. Like Lovecraft and the name of his cat. Where the Rainbow Touches the Ground plays with dialects and different nationalities for a very short period. The concern I could see is the interwoven history of Bobbett and the Osage Nation and the history of Missionaries as well as the very obvious joke name “We-was-sa” (given in this case to a white boy adopted by the Osage nation within the story).

Beyond this I found the story to be quite humorous in parts and fairly witty. I enjoyed the complex histories and how things from the beginning and relationships would turn around and how as Mrs. Patterson believed there was always a silver lining:

“Clouds!” she would say. “Whose afraid of clouds? The sun shines on the side we don’t see. Didn’t you ever think of that? While the side we see is all billows of darkness, the other side is just glorious billows of gold (…) That’s the side I think of. “

I also greatly enjoyed the seemingly complex yet absurd romance of Florilda Catherine. I’ve never seen a correspondence handled in such a way. I’ll save that though for you to find out if you decide to read the book.

I found every page, every further step into the lives of the Patterson’s and those around them or in the past as it changed after that fatefully bizarre cyclone and charming adventure. I never would have expected finding such an old book such an easy read. There were moments where I had to look up slang and the occasional word, but it wasn’t like trying to wade through Kafka or parse through a Shakespeare play. I found it humorous and laughed aloud often, which is such a delight since few authors make me laugh so consistently outside of the works by Sir Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams.

Due to its age finding a hard copy of the book seems to be rather difficult if not price. However the book does seem to be available for free as an E-book via Google Books. If you want to give it a read you should be able to find it here.

If you found yourself finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow what would you do with it?

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