Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Jim Minick is a writer and editor whose new book Without Warning: The Tornado of Udall, Kansasreleases in May. We talked about the role of imagination in historical writing, the difficulties of addressing race with an all-white subject, and the contingent nature of rebuilding after disaster, below.

What remained of the Udall grade school after the tornado. (Photo provided)

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: The first chapter of your new book is a reconstruction of the day of the Udall tornado, told in extreme narrative detail from the perspective of one of its victims. How did you go about imagining that character? What kinds of historical evidence were you working with to do that act of recreation? How much of it required setting your imagination free?

Jim Minick: On May 25, 1955, twelve-year-old Gary Atkinson delivered the daily Winfield Courier newspaper to most of the 600 residents of his hometown, Udall, Kansas. That night, he and his younger brother, Stanley, were killed by the tornado. Their mother died a few days later, also from tornado-inflicted wounds, and their father died six months later from his wounds and cancer. So this family of five quickly became a family of one; the oldest son, Bob Atkinson, was the only survivor of the tornado, and he had extensive and severe wounds that kept him in the hospital for several months. Thankfully, Bob is still alive today, and he was one of my main sources, sharing his story as well as information about the paper route and town.

The idea for using the paperboy riding his bike as a way to give a tour of the town before it was destroyed came from David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood, where he recounts a parade that marched through Johnstown the day before it was washed away. From an earlier interview with Bob, I knew he had been the paperboy, so when I interviewed him a second time, I expected to get details about this route, the people along it, and such. But right away, Bob said, “Oh, I didn’t deliver papers on that day. That was my younger brother Gary’s job then.” Bob had moved on to other jobs and a new bicycle, passing along both the route and the old bike to his brother. At first, when I learned this, I was dumbfounded. My perfect plan of giving a tour of the town seemed derailed. But then I realized the power and poignancy of Gary doing this, this young boy riding around having fun, all without knowing this would be the last day of his life. With Bob’s help, I was able to describe both the town and Gary going about his daily job. And I should add that Bob is a great storyteller, sharing details about how the newspapers came via a small airplane that dropped the bundle on the high school football field, hopefully without popping open the bundle, or how Bob’s pet raccoon used to hold onto his shoulder when he rode his bike.  

Your question about imagination is important. In many ways, this book is not my story. I didn’t grow up in this town, never lived in Kansas, never witnessed a tornado. And yet, to make the story work, I had to make it my own. I had to imagine my way into these people’s lives as they crawled over rubble to find help or as they took on the monumental task of rebuilding. And early on, I had planned on making this book fiction, a novel, which would’ve made my job and use of imagination much easier. But as survivors shared their stories, as I quickly felt their trust in me and the power of these stories, I realized that keeping the story nonfiction would best honor these people, their town, and all who died. To make it nonfiction, I still had to use great amounts of imagination, but all of that had to be grounded in what actually happened. So in addition to hundreds of hours of interviews, the book is also based on extensive research of the newspaper accounts from that time. And then, when possible, which was most of the time, I shared what I wrote, what I imagined, with the survivors. I wanted them to see what I was doing with their stories, and I wanted them to say, yes, that’s right.

DY: What got you interested in the tornado in Udall? What was the motivation behind this project?

JM: My sister-in-law, who I dearly love, grew up in Udall after the tornado. Her father, who taught at the Udall High School, was not at home when the tornado hit because he was on a date with her mother in a nearby town. Otherwise, he could’ve easily been killed. So in 2011, I had finished a novel and was looking for a new project. And I had this crazy idea. One of my favorite writers, Fred Chappell, has written four books of poetry and four novels, each one somehow focused on one of the four elements. I liked that. The novel that I had just finished focused on fire (titled Fire Is Your Water), and when my sister-in-law heard me talk about this element-based approach, she said, “My hometown was wiped out by a tornado. That’s some wind for you.” Sure enough. Also, it helped tremendously that she and her mother knew the key people I needed to talk with. They opened many doors.

DY: I understand that your research largely consisted of conducting oral histories with survivors of the tornado. What was that experience like? Did it ever feel like you were dredging up an old tragedy, or is that day still top of mind for most of its survivors?

JM: This varied with the person telling the story. Since this tornado is the worst in Kansas history, and one of the deadliest in U.S. history, many of the survivors had told their stories often in the past to journalists and others. Though it might not be comfortable to remember, they had done so enough, and so much time had passed, that the memories weren’t too painful. But some survivors still haven’t talked, and I respect that. With those who were willing to share, and since my job was to recreate this event through each person’s experience, I had to ask harder questions. So yes, there was pain involved, for them and me. There are parts of this that I can’t read without that pang of holding back tears. And I didn’t even go through it! Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” Both writer and reader compose the story, and if we want powerful stories, we have to risk the full range of emotions, from surprise to tears.

DY: What did you learn about the nature of the small town you were studying in reconstructing the simultaneous processes of grieving and rebuilding that it carried out in the storm’s immediate aftermath?

JM: Resilience. And good leadership. People are incredibly strong. The cemetery is right at the edge of town, and often workers had to stop their hauling away of the rubble to stand and watch a hearse travel through the just-cleared streets. The burying of the dead happened often at the same time as the rebuilding. Also, leadership or lack thereof, is so integral to a small town’s survival. This same supercell storm system also caused a tornado that destroyed Blackwell, Oklahoma an hour before the Udall tornado struck. Twenty people died in Blackwell, and yet the search for living and dead, and the rebuilding of homes and businesses was greatly delayed because Blackwell had no strong leaders, especially compared to Udall. Udall fortunately had Earl “Toots” Rowe as mayor. He did a tremendous job of telling his fellow citizens that “This is home. I’m going to rebuild. And you’re still going to be my neighbor.” That became a chorus for so many as they buried their dead and rebuilt their homes.

The community of Udall cleaning up debris in the aftermath of the tornado. (Photo provided)

DY: You write that Udall fundraised for its pre-tornado community center “by holding minstrel shows and parades, festivals and box suppers.” Obviously, to the modern ear, one of those methods is not lighthearted like the others, and seems to imply an all-white populace. What else did you learn about the town’s demographics and racial politics in researching this book? Did you ever think of discussing those issues more explicitly?

JM: The citizens of Udall in 1955 and now in 2023 are mostly white. I researched this extensively, especially looking for photographs of diversity, and only found 5 of people of color, all men — 3 were with the National Guard (2 on Kitchen Patrol, go figure) and 2 were with the gandy dancers (railroad workers) who immediately helped with search and rescue. One of these last ones was a Choctaw who told a reporter about rescuing a baby from his dead mother’s arms. In writing the book, I couldn’t figure out a good way to include how white the whole town was. Then, recently, an early reviewer, Meredith Sue Willis, commented on the homogeneity, and how our future efforts to help communities rebuild after disasters will require an inclusivity of all. She ends her review with this question: “When will we begin to see Our Town in the lives of the Others, whoever they might be?”

I wish I had been able to include something like this in the epilogue, about how our present and future idea of community (and generosity and obligation and survival) needs to include everyone, especially those who might not look like us.

DY: At the end of the book you describe the anniversary of the Udall tornado at two years out, and then 10, and then 40, 50, and 60 – all the way up to 2015. What kinds of changes in attitudes and ways of remembering the tragedy were you trying to depict in that section? What do you think that progression says about the town?

JM: I wanted to see how a town remembered and how they memorialized and if and how that changed over time. It did change some. One year the anniversary had more of a festival vibe, called “Fun-nel Days” with funnel cakes and logos on coffee mugs and such. By the next anniversary, that all disappeared to a quieter remembrance of those who died and a celebration of those who lived and of the town itself. Since it is such a small town like the one I grew up in, most everyone knows everyone, often by blood or marriage. So how do we want to remember our gone kinfolk is a question we should all answer. Udall and its citizens do this annually because of this anniversary, but most of us do not. And in this remembering, what stories do we carry forward? Like it or not, these stories shape us, and we need good stories from the past as we face living in a climate-changed future. It seems prudent to call up the Wendy S. Walters’s quote I use as the book’s epigraph: “We are going to go where our stories go — the ones we dig up and the ones we invent. If we don’t make better stories, the worst of stories will make us.” Hopefully, Udall and its story of resilience will help others as we all figure out how to live a better story for future generations.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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