Shiner by Amy Jo Burns
Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: May 5, 2020
Your Local Book Store, Amazon
Stories of contemporary Southern mountain men abound (Bull Mountain, The Line That Held Us), but examples of women are a bit harder to come by. The fact Amy Jo Burns brings three such women to life in her novel, Shiner, is just one outstanding element of many in this lush debut.
Raised in isolation in the West Virginia mountains, Wren doesn’t know much of the outside world. Her father Briar is a snake-handling preacher who believes its ways lead only to sin. She’s schooled at home, in a cabin with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Everything in her life is homemade, even the soap. She can read, but only the Bible…as far her father knows. What he doesn’t know is that on their infrequent trips into town Wren checks out as many books as she can from the library and hides them. With no friends she spends her time in the world of nature or of books.
Ruby is Wren’s mother. Her best friend is Ivy, a woman she’s known since she was a little girl. They’re so close that when Ruby decided to marry a young man who saw himself as a spiritual leader not to be tainted by modern society, Ivy found a man willing to live out in the woods as well. The two friends will not be separated, a fact even Wren’s father accepts. Their bond is absolute.
Shiner is divided into four parts. The first begins with an accident that precipitates a cyclone of tragedy in the lives of Wren, Ruby, and Ivy. This part ends abruptly and shifts into the lives of the two men in the novel’s background. Briar and his best friend, Flynn are from the same town as Ruby and Ivy. A town with only three options for work: coal mine, moonshine, or preaching. Briar chose God and Flynn followed his father and became a shiner. Both loved Ruby, but the life of a shiner’s wife didn’t appeal to her. Part three is Ruby and Ivy’s history and in part four, Baker brings the story full circle.
These brief facts do little to represent a novel that brims with life. The world Baker creates in Shiner is one where the passage of time has done little to change a place except to strip it of the little prosperity it once had. A place where the land, even stripped of its underground wealth, continues to provide. The mountain people, with their snakes and moonshine, abide by a staunch moral code that supports them, but leaves them rooted in place. What is unfathomable to outsiders is just the way it’s always been.
Much of this traditional life comes at the expense of women, but Ruby, Ivy, and Wren are still the novel’s abundance. The women’s friendship is like the environment around them—mercurial, complex, with sunshine and storms. Easy to get lost in unless you know the way. For Wren, potentially facing a future living her mother’s life is not something either she or Ruby wants, but options are few. In each iteration of relationship—mother, daughter, friend—the depth of feeling is visceral.
There is so much to explore in Shiner. Set in a location without many of the amenities we take for granted, it’s a rugged landscape in which Baker plants her characters. But in the fertile soil of her mind they flourish, bringing beauty to life in this insular world filled with hard-won wisdom and a resilience born of deprivation.
“It takes no bravery to work a miracle. What takes bravery is when there’s no miracle at all.”
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