Reviewed by Jon Gugala
If Gabriel Garcia Marquez were to set his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude in rural steel-town Pennsylvania around the turn of the 19th century, the results would be eerily reminiscent of Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty.
Thirsty begins when Klara, a young woman in Croatia, finds a mysterious and alluring young man on her doorstep. Drago invites her to join him as his wife in a new life in the New World. O’Keeffe then jumps, trailing Klara across the Atlantic and through her life in Thirsty, Pennsylvania, a composite of the steel boomtowns of the era. As Drago transforms from tender lover to violent steel man, Klara must find happiness where she can: through her neighbor Katherine; BenJo, the Negro produce salesman; her children. Thirsty spans three generations as Klara transitions from wife, to mother, to grandmother, similar to Marquez’s Solitude.
In Thirsty, O’Keeffe celebrates the steel constitutions of the mill-town women instead of the men who made the steel, blending her story with matriarchal themes, and by contrasting Klara and Drago’s differing treatment of Blacks, O’Keeffe explores the racial attitudes that existed north of the Mason-Dixon line after the Civil War. The novel’s folk-tale feel hovers close to Klara, but O’Keeffe’s narrator also accesses the points-of-view of multiple characters, similar again to Marquez, to paint a broad perspective of Klara’s life. While O’Keeffe’s female characters suffer through physical and emotional abuse at the hands of men, Thirsty exudes the hope and beauty born through endurance.
O’Keeffe is a masterful storyteller with an eye for poetic description, which eases her reader into a tale of the extraordinary. Klara “heard the clamor of approaching drumbeats. She turned in that direction and saw the butterflies swarm around her, spinning and twirling like the colors and patterns of a kaleidoscope.” In O’Keeffe’s world, hordes of butterflies descend upon the sulfur-smelling town, a baby is born in a pumpkin patch, an emissary from the Pope visits, and lemons are purchased from the corner store. And it works. O’Keeffe weaves her spell as a storyteller masterfully, lingering on fantastical sights long enough to marvel, but never question.
While O’Keeffe shows great talent for action and movement, Thirsty never succeeds in fully developing its male characters, which leaves the book lopsided. Men are classified as either good or bad, and even when O’Keeffe puts her reader inside of the head of Drago, opposite to her heroine Klara, we never discover what drives him to beat Klara with such violence, and therefore never see another dimension to his character. O’Keeffe falls equally flat with Maxwell, Klara’s son-in-law, whose misogyny and wife-beating fail to be explained with the accompanying back-story.
Despite its minor flaws, O’Keeffe’s Thirsty is an ambitious debut novel and provides an entertaining read with rich sights. O’Keeffe’s power as a storyteller should mark her as a writer to take note of in the years ahead.
Jon Gugala is a senior in the Fiction Writing Department, through whom he studies, works, tutors, and teaches a class of fourth graders on the South Side of Chicago. Originally from Jacksonville, North Carolina, he now lives in Chicago and enjoys reading, running far, and travel.Posted on December 3, 2009 at 3:00 PM