We all know how destructive a tornado can be, but can it also bring together people from different countries, backgrounds and socioeconomic levels? It does in Terence Gallagher’s Fujita 4, a novel that explores what can happen when different people are — in some cases literally — thrown together.
Disaster strikes when an F4 tornado hits a prison in South Carolina built as part of a pay-to-play deal with Governor Ed Tolliver. (Fun fact: F stands for Fujita, as in Ted Fujita, the Japanese-American scientist who created the 5-level scale measuring the strength and intensity of tornadoes.) The prison, having been built with substandard materials, does not withstand the tornado, causing loss of life and giving a death-row inmate a means to escape.
When the inmate, Rob Williams, gets picked up by Irish math professor Andrew Burke at the end of Andrew’s time visiting the States, a tempest of trouble is unleashed that will bring together several very different people under controversial circumstances that, without the tornado, probably never would have intersected.
RELIGIOUS BELIEFS, MORALITY AND THE DEATH PENALTY
These unique circumstances allow Fujita 4 to explore several social issues, the main one being the death penalty. Rob had been sentenced to die after a shoddy trial and appeals that were conducted with incompetent public defenders and unfeeling pro-death penalty lawyers. Andrew aids Rob because he’s an Irish Catholic and believes that putting someone to death is murder and a sin.
The issue is clear, right? Not when there’s a governor up for re-election, Canadian–American relations become involved, clear crimes have been committed, and news cycles are on a 24-hour basis and can be manipulated. Rob and Andrew go from heroes breaking free of an unjust system to pawns in a war of philosophies surrounding the death penalty. The turn of events will make readers wonder how far they themselves would go for what they believe.
ADDICTION AND THE SOCIOECONOMIC DIVIDE
And while readers sort out their stances about the death penalty with what’s being presented, Gallagher throws in another controversial issue — drug addiction. Addiction was part of the reason why the state claimed Rob committed murder. Coincidentally, Governor Tolliver’s daughter died of a drug overdose. However, how they lived with their addictions was vastly different.
Self-described “white trash” Rob and his descent into drug dealing and addiction are portrayed as almost an inevitable part of growing up in his environment. Meanwhile, well-to-do Caroline Tolliver’s addiction is painted as a rebellious choice and, once made, she couldn’t free herself from it. Readers will correlate these character portrayals with real drug crises portrayals in American society: the impoverished, drug-addled meth-head as a despised criminal versus the suburban heroin addict as a tragic victim.
POLITICS BEFORE PEOPLE
What struck me the most, however, was the power of politics as a theme. Reading this in the middle of one of the most controversial elections in my lifetime, the book brought to my mind the inherently dubious world of politics and its intersection with actual lives and livelihoods. Andrew’s charitable (though unlawful) act becomes a life-threatening cause, and all because a governor wanted to cover up his misdeeds and appear re-electable.
In the end, the tornado in Fujita 4 is more than just a physically destructive force. It unleashes a series of events and consequences that rip open philosophical and societal issues and leaves their foundations bare for us to examine.