Home > 2020s, 21st Century, American Literature, Burns Amy Jo, Novel > Shiner by Amy Jo Burns – drama in the Appalachians

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns – drama in the Appalachians

October 30, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns (2020) French title: Les femmes n’ont pas d’histoire. Translated by Héloïse Esquié.

I received Shiner by Amy Jo Burns through my Kube subscription. It was serendipity to get a book set in the Appalachians just before my trip there. I read it during the summer and well, real life got in the way of blogging. (All for good reasons, though. Nothing to complain about.)

It’s a hard book to describe, for its bewildering setting, the story it tells about people who seem to live like their grand-parents and according to old-fashioned and self-made rules. So, to help you figure out Shiner‘s atmosphere, let’s hear Wren introduce her story:

Making good moonshine isn’t that different from telling a good story, and no one tells a story like a woman. She knows that legends and liquor are best spun from the back of a pickup truck after nightfall, just as she knows to tell a story slowly, the way whiskey drips through a sieve. Moonshine earned its name from spending its life concealed in the dark, and no one understands that fate more than I do.

Beyond these hills my people are known for the kick in their liquor and the poverty in their hearts. Overdoses, opioids, unemployment. Folks prefer us this way—dumb-mouthed with yellow teeth and cigarettes, dumb-minded with carboys of whiskey and broken-backed Bibles. But that’s not the real story. Here’s what hides behind the beauty line along West Virginia’s highways: a fear that God has forgotten us. We live in the wasteland that coal has built, where trains eat miles of track. Our men slip serpents through their fingers on Sunday mornings and pray for God to show Himself while our wives wash their husbands’ underpants. Here’s what hides behind my beauty line: My father wasn’t just one of these men. He was the best.

[…] “It’s a true story,” I begin, roosting in the back of an old truck. “I swear it.”

Then I tell them that these woods can turn eerie or romantic, depending on the company you keep.

[…] The story of the snake handler’s daughter began when I’d just turned fifteen. I knew little then of the outside world my father kept from me. Ours is an oral civilization, I used to hear him say, and it’s dying. He blamed coal, he blamed heroin. He never blamed himself. He thought he had the only tales worth telling, and he never understood what my mother had run from all her life because she’d been born a woman—

The truth turns sour if it idles too long in our mouths. Stories, like bottles of shine, are meant to be given away.

This is a long excerpt of the first chapter of Shiner and it sums it up beautifully.

We’re in West Virginia, in the mountains and the nearest village is Trap. Three families live scattered in the woods. The Birds, Ivy and her family and the Sherrods.

The Bird family is composed of Ruby, Briar and their daughter Wren. She’s the narrator in this introduction and Briar is the snake- handler, gift that supposedly gives him a direct access to God. Ivy is Ruby’s best friend; she’s married to Ricky and then have four children. The Sherrods are moonshiners and the son Flynn was in school with Ruby, Ivy and Briar.

Briar is a preacher and his prestige comes from his surviving to a lightning and handling snakes. He keeps his wife and daughter captive in their cabin in the woods, away from civilization. Ivy stays close to her best friend that she swore to never leave behind. She’s the only visitor to this uncomfortable cabin and Wren follows school syllabi from Ivy’s son who is her age.

When Briar performs a miracle on Ivy, it sets in motion a series of events that will lead Wren to liberate herself from her father and discover all her family secrets.

Honestly, I don’t know what to think about this book. It’s well executed and beautifully written. But it’s another bleak story about a domineering and religious man who imposes on his wife and daughter to live off the grid, according to his own rules.

I have trouble with these books because I can never relate to this religious frenzy. I want to slap these men who imprison their families into narrow lives and don’t practice what they preach. I want to shout at their wives to take their kids and leave and stop being so gullible or down on their knees with admiration for their impostors of husbands.

Not very empathetic, I know. I had the same problem with Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson or with the ghosts in Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.

I have a feeling of incredulity with these books. In a way they seem realistic enough not to require a suspension of belief and at the same time the families they describe seem so disconnected from mainstream life that they appear to be unrealistic. And here I am with very ambivalent feelings about Shiner, a remarkable novel I didn’t connect to as much as I would have expected.

Shiner is the story of modern Appalachia, and yes, there’s everything Ron Rash, Chris Offutt or David Joy talk about: a dying culture, a terrible problem with opioids and heroin, poverty after the mines closed, sickness after tap water was poisoned and the utter beauty of the woods. So, I have to consider that people like Ruby, Briar, Wren, Ivy and her family and the moonshiner Flynn are true-to-life characters.

And in that case, it makes me sad and angry towards several States and their politicians who accept that their constituents live like this. Has anyone read this? I’d love to discuss it with another reader.

  1. November 5, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    The passage you shared is stunning. Such wonderful writing but I can relate to your ambivalence. It does sound very bleak and the situation of the characters so frustrating.

    Like

    • November 5, 2022 at 9:32 pm

      It’s a beautiful passage that really resonates with what I’ve heard and read by David Joy and Ron Rash but yes, it’s bleak and this religious side, it’s really something I have a hard time with.

      Liked by 1 person

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