Northern Lights by Raymond Strom
Publication date: February 12, 2019
Genres: Coming-of-age, Debut, Fiction, Literary
Shane’s father has died, his uncle has kicked him out of the house, and he’s decided it’s time to find the mother who left him when he was ten. In the fall he’ll be going to college in Minneapolis, but armed with a postcard, one hundred dollars, and all his belongings in a backpack he heads to the Holm, Minnesota, the only address he has for his mother. In this rugged, rural town, Shane finds that his long blonde hair and androgynous looks cause him even more trouble than he had at home. This is Northern Lights.
Shane’s summer soon becomes less about finding his mother and more about finding himself. He’s befriended by Jenny, a beautiful, but troubled young woman and he falls in with Russell, a teenager like himself, but one whose plans don’t extend beyond his next high. Both evoke confusion in him for his attraction to them. And both are magnets for trouble—Jenny as the girl everyone wants and Russell for his drugs and his clumsy advances, followed by violent retreats. Shane walks a fine line between getting by and getting noticed for all the wrong reasons.
Northern Lights has good bones—bigotry, coming-of-age, sexuality, and the early stages of the oncoming plague of economic decline. Shane wants to find his mother, not for accusations or rage, but to forgive her. To acknowledge that becoming a parent at 17, the age he is now, is a burden some people can’t bear. He has a tender optimism about seeing her again, despite the fact that when he reached out years ago she wanted nothing to do with him. But while this emotional premise is strong at the novel’s beginning it fades, as does any other emotion in the story. Soon, even events that could be evocative have a detached feel to them. The emotional life of the novel segues into a story focused on the impact of unemployment and drugs. A story that sweeps Shane up but leaves the reader behind, with little connection to or investment in what happens. It could have been more, but this is still a really good debut from a potentially great author.