Candy Moulton: Reading the West 8-15-11
August 15, 2011
In her poignant opening, Merlyn Janet Magner, writes, “At approximately 10:25 p.m. I drowned.” It was June 9, 1972, and in the torrential rainstorm that caused a disastrous flood of Rapid Creek, Magner was swept from the arms of her brother Jeffrey into the roiling water. She nearly drowned, but miraculously slammed onto the roof of a two-story condominium being built not far from her home, where she shivered and shook through a long, dark night. At daybreak rescuers found her naked, hypothermic and bewildered. Her mother, her father, her brother Jeffrey all perished along with 235 other residents of the city and surrounding area.
The night of the flood, Merlyn, age 19, had been enjoying time with her brother Jeff. They’d only returned to the family home, she from California where she had been living, and he from Arizona, where he was attending college, making music, being an artist. Their older brother, Bill, was halfway around the world serving the U.S. Air Force in Thailand.
The two young people had a bit of warning about impending disaster from their father, who with their mother was just across the street at a neighbor’s house, enjoying cocktails as the rain poured down. Dad told them to move the cars to higher ground. Almost immediately after doing so, the young people settled into a comfortable room and thought all was fairly right in their world. Until the electricity blinked. Came on. Went out. And then they realized the rain had caused a flood.
Jeff climbed to the roof of their house; Merlyn tried to follow him but was swept away in the water.
This book, her first, is based on that traumatic event where she lost most of her family in a few terrible hours. It is, however, more a story of how she fought the demons that dogged her for years to come, how she closed her heart to love, stood on denial, and jet-setted around the world in what really appears to be an effort to run away from the hurt and pain of rising creek waters.
Sadly, she severs her relationship with her older brother Bill, who himself dies too young, and other relatives. Her saving may come from close friends who will later face their own life-and-death struggles. And as the years unfold, finally, Merlyn reaches rock bottom and finds her way back to the light.
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This is not a clear Western book, though of course the Rapid City Flood of 1972 is one of those cataclysmic natural disasters in the annals of Western History. Instead, it is the story of how one young woman managed to finally find some measure of peace and understanding.