SLOW STORM builds much like its namesake, starting out calmly and escalating to a frenzied climax. Caught inside the whirlwind of the storm are a female firefighter named Ursa Crain and an illegal Mexican immigrant named Rafael José Herrera Sifuentes, or Rafi. Their interaction after a barn fire brings them together and causes both to reevaluate their own particular life paths in a sharp, often challenging story from writer and illustrator Danica Novgorodoff.
Novgorodoff has a wonderful ear for the dialogue of her Oldham County, Kentucky, setting. She manages to convey broad sweeps of emotion with an admirable economy of words. What’s more, she tells her story without editorial narration. Instead, SLOW STORM is unveiled through its characters’ points of view. This method of telling the story is often confusing, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty, and with Novgorodoff’s fantastic watercolor illustrations, the story is often elevated to an almost dreamlike quality.
That dreamlike nature is reflected in the two protagonists. Ursa is miserable in her life. Taunted by the men around her, including her own brother, she’s looking for something else. Rafi is looking for escape and a new beginning. What they find together is a brief chance to see the world in a new way. Novgorodoff wisely keeps her tale minimalist here; she’s not one to become heavy-handed, which is refreshing.
Complementing her effortless storytelling are Novgorodoff’s lush watercolor paintings. Quite simply, they’re beautifully rendered. With the book’s action taking place just after the Kentucky Derby, her intriguing parallels between galloping horses and the constant running of Rafi as he searches for a place to stay is nicely done. Novgorodoff is a former horse trainer, and her background shows (her love for animals also shines through in the wonderfully emotive facial expressions she gives each of them).
SLOW STORM has the feel of an atmospheric short film. Even the cover is breathtaking. As Ursa stands before a soot-filled sky, a hint of yellow sun peeking through the clouds, she is surrounded by a mixture of flying birds and falling leaves --- or perhaps they’re ashes blowing around from a nearby fire. That alone should be enough to signal the power Novgorodoff is capable of conveying in her images.
In fact, SLOW STORM works so well because of Novgorodoff’s ability to almost constantly convey motion and movement. She captures on the page even simple things like winds blowing, or people and animals running, or cars and trucks driving (the early-on picture of a tree’s leaves depicted in the windshield and hood of a car is a nice touch), all with a flair that belies her relative inexperience. Moreover, her choice of angles in her panels --- she rarely focuses directly on Ursa in the first half of the book, instead portraying her either from above or below --- shows a unique eye. It will be exciting to watch Novgorodoff as she develops further.
Reviewed by John Hogan on January 23, 2011