Review of Shiner by Amy Jo Burns
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
The women's lifelong friendship felt like the heart of the story and was a fantastic element.
Teenage Wren is an only child growing up on top of a modern-day West Virginia mountaintop in a cabin that feels a million miles away from society. She and her family are surrounded by a cast of mountaintop characters intent on avoiding the constraints (and comforts) of town life, including moonshiners.
Her mother Ruby is smart and fierce, but somewhere along the way her youthful dreams of creating a path somewhere else--and a life bigger than the drudgery of marriage and motherhood--fizzled. Ruby's best friend Ivy allowed herself to be pulled into a marriage of limited love and to remain in the region with limited life trajectories out of loyalty to Ruby. The grown women's lives aren't what they envisioned, but they remain tightly bound and even (somehow, despite the many chores of their homespun lives) trek up and down the mountain to see each other daily. Wren understands their friendship to be the primary allegiance in each of their lives, and her mother keeps her at a distance although she does love her daughter.
Wren's father Briar is a serpent handler who came into leading the area's gas station church after being struck by lightning in his late teens and developing a knack for dramatic retellings of the event (and a milky white eye to which he attributes otherworldly gifts). Wren is beginning to see holes in her father's larger-than-life persona and to doubt that he is exceptional after all.
When tragedy strikes and Briar attempts to address the crisis with words and faith rather than emergency medical attention, everything begins to unravel for the family, including long-held secrets that threaten to upend their lives completely.
I love an Appalachian-set story. I felt like some of the feelings and reflections in Amy Jo Burns's Shiner were over-the-top dramatic, but the events within the faith-healing, folklore-driven community felt true and moved things along nicely. The women's lifelong friendship felt like the heart of the story and was a fantastic element.
What did you think?
The community's unfailing allegiance to a personality-over-substance faith leader reminded me of Godshot, although the tone is very different.