In her stunning debut novel Shiner, Amy Jo Burns explores friendship and grief in the mountains of West Virginia. Teenaged Wren Bird and her family live an isolated and antiquated life in Randolph County, nearly an hour from the nearest mining town. Wren’s father, Briar Bird, is one of the few snake-handling preachers left in the area. Briar perceives himself as not only a preacher but a prophet, believing that being struck by lightning as a teenager, and the milky white eye it left him with, made him able to see both the physical and spiritual world. Briar Bird, called White Eye by his congregation, is content to live in isolation and without modern amenities and dictates that his wife Ruby and daughter Wren do the same.
Deeply woven into the fabric of Wren’s secluded life is Ivy, the Birds’ closest neighbor and a life-long friend of Ruby’s. Ivy is so dedicated to her friend that she had her family settle near the Birds simply to be close to Ruby. In spite of growing families and the passage of time, the women’s bond remains strong, and Ruby and Ivy undertake daily pilgrimages up and down a mountain to see one another. This long-held friendship is a balm to both women and sustains them through years of hard living. So close are the two women that Briar jests that all Ruby needs is “bread and Ivy.”
Without a best friend or loyal congregation to serve as solace for an isolated life, Wren relies mostly on her mother for companionship. Wren’s only interaction with the modern world comes from monthly trips to a nearby town for groceries and supplies. Dressed in an old-fashioned style as dictated by their religion, Wren and her family are viewed as oddities by the people in town. This, combined with her father’s distrust of outsiders, make it all but impossible for Wren to make friends her own age. Moreover, Briar Bird keeps his family hard to find and harder to reach, with no internet, telephone, or mailing address. Wren’s social circle extends only as far as her father and mother, Ivy’s family, and her father’s congregation. Ruled by her father and his religion, Wren’s life is small and uneventful with little but books and nature to serve as company.
Wren’s way of life is upended, however, when tragedy strikes and the Birds are forced to confront long-buried secrets, including one that threatens the bond between Ruby and Ivy. Life is further complicated when Wren meets outsider Caleb, a foster teen who questions the Birds’ way of life, and Flynn, a moonshiner from Ruby’s past. After meeting Caleb and Flynn, Wren finds that she has secrets of her own that leave her faith in her snake-handling father shaken. Made to contend with her parents’ past and her own future, Wren Bird learns what life is truly like for women like Ruby and Ivy and how to survive in an unfamiliar world.
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With riveting characters and unraveling secrets, Shiner is nearly impossible to put down. Peppered with insights about everything from friendship to religion to moonshine, Amy Jo Burns weaves a multi-generational yarn with mountain women front and center. Too often depicted in Appalachian writing as one-dimensional, mountaineer women are brought to life in Shiner as readers are given a glimpse into their inner workings. Ruby, Ivy, and Wren are rich, multi-dimensional characters who prove that although mountaineer men may rule the hills, it’s often the unsung mountain women who “give it its splendor”.
Burns admirably and deftly covers a breadth of issues, but it is her insights about female friendship that truly make Shiner, well, shine. In a flashback, Ivy reflects that “old churchgoers…used to have a name for this sort of union: a covenant, the kind that King David had with Jonathan in the Book of Samuel. They spoke of it as if men had invented the mystery of friendship, as if it hadn’t been the libation that sustained mountain women ever since water split rock to form the razorbacks above the hills.” A pinnacle of friendship, Ivy and Ruby navigate the troubled waters of mountain living together for decades and keep one another buoyed through heartbreak and hardship. Pinned upon such a universal theme, Burns’ novel will resonate with readers both inside and out of Appalachia.
A blend of domestic fiction, Bildungsroman, and mystery, Shiner is well-suited for fans of Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing and the novels of Barbara Kingsolver. Shiner will keep readers hooked to the very end, by which time all mysteries and storylines are neatly tied up while leaving characters like Wren with room to grow. Shiner clocks in at 255 pages which, if you are anything like me, you will devour in one breathless sitting. The novel was published by Riverhead Books in May 2020 and it is author Amy Jo Burns’ first work of fiction.
• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and parttime as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.