Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Stormchasers Likens Extreme Weather to Bipolar Disorder

Jenna Blum's newest novel The Stormchasers relates the story of fraternal twins Karena and Charles Hallingdahl. Estranged for twenty years, Karena receives a phone call one day from a hospital that is treating her brother for anxiety attacks. Karena leaves her life in the Twin Cities to travel to Kansas to see her brother, so long missing from their family. However, by the time she arrives Charles has been discharged from the hospital and is gone once again. Karena explains to the doctor who treated Charles that anxiety is not her twin's primary diagnosis. Rather, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder decades ago and refused treatment prior to his disappearance.

Karena's only knowledge of her brother's interests -- at least twenty years ago -- lies in the dangerous hobby of storm chasing. Desperate to see him and terrified of the affect the anti-anxiety medications Charles has been prescribed might have on his manic symptoms, Karena decides to join a storm chasing tour group under the guise of writing an article for the Minneapolis newspaper where she works. Karena falls for a guide on the tour, who has a long history in the storm chasing world, and who has met Karena's brother. Will Karena find her brother, and what will happen if she does?

Blum sections the novel into three distinct parts -- the adventurous and suspense-filled storm chasing tour, then a mid-book flashback to 1988 when the twins turned 18 and faced adulthood, and finally a return to the present with the novel's denouement. The flashback threw me for a loop initially. I so enjoyed Blum's introductory pages, that I was stunned by the switch to, not just scenes from, but an entire section devoted to the twins' teenage selves. However, upon reflection I feel that the flashback and background story were an absolute necessity. Blum's transition was a bit too abrupt, but after a few pages I was once again entranced by her writing and deeply involved in the twins' 18-year-old issues.

Bipolar disorder is an oft-discussed but highly misunderstood mental health diagnosis. Many people still think of and refer to bipolar disorder by its former name: manic depression. Having worked for several years in the mental health field, I was initially skeptical about an author's ability to translate the disorder realistically onto the page. Movies depict bipolar disorder as many things it is not, and a fictional book struck me as one more way the illness could be skewed for the public. However, as Blum states in the video interview below, she has personal experience with the disorder -- people in her life who have been diagnosed with this illness. Blum's words carry with them a truthfulness when she describes Charles's symptoms: days at a time without sleep, psychosis with auditory and visual hallucinations, grandiose thoughts and ideas. Each person diagnosed with bipolar disorder's experience is different, but Blum does an excellent job of describing at least some of the symptoms individuals with the disorder face.

The novel is an extended metaphor of sorts -- Blum uses big storms as a way of discussing bipolar disorder. As she states in the interview below, bipolar disorder is sometimes described as an "electrical storm" within the brain, occurring when there is an abnormality in brain circuit structures and/or functions. The lightning of storms is similar to the misfiring of neurons that researchers hypothesize happens in the brains of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The disorder also is known for its cyclic patterns, both long and short. These cycles are mimicked by the tornadoes in the book. Blum describes Charles's initial diagnosis as cyclothymia, a slightly milder version of bipolar. The word obviously has links to the root word for cyclone, an alternate word for circular storms like tornadoes.

Blum conducted years of research while writing The Stormchasers, including going on several storm chasing tours with the Tempest Tours group based in Texas. Storm chasing is not an invented hobby, but rather a serious method of research that scientists and meteorologists employ in the study of storms. The National Association of Storm Chasers and Spotters, headed by famous chaser Warren Faidley, partners with The Weather Channel and other media outlets to help alert the public during dangerous weather outbreaks. Discovery Channel also has a reality show which depicts the lives of chasers as they follow storms that pop up on the Great Plains, called Storm Chasers.

Watch an interview with the Jenna Blum on the path that led her to write The Stormchasers:

I had the opportunity to read this novel after winning it in a book giveaway on Mari Partyka's book blog Bookworm with a View. Check out her review of the novel and a Q&A with the author.


  1. Great review! You include so much, and it's just wonderful. I agree with you, I wasn't sure why the middle was necessary (to include so much detail) but at the end it all made sense.

    I'm so glad you enjoyed this book!

  2. Read the book, it was interesting from a storm chaser's perspective.

    BTW, Storm Chase Guide provides lower cost storm chasing tours. In 2010 all of my customers observed multiple tornadoes, I would be thrilled to provide you the same experience.
    Storm Chasing Tours - Storm Chase Guide



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