Would You Trust a Snake-Wielding Preacher, if He Were Your Dad?

Would You Trust a Snake-Wielding Preacher, if He Were Your Dad?

Would You Trust a Snake-Wielding Preacher, if He Were Your Dad?

Would You Trust a Snake-Wielding Preacher, if He Were Your Dad?

SHINER
By Amy Jo Burns
Read by Catherine Taber

I listened to “Shiner,” Amy Jo Burns’s fierce and moving debut novel, as I walked deserted spring streets, almost tasting the West Virginia whiskey of the title, a jolt “like heartbreak at midnight.” The audiobook’s narrator, Catherine Taber, talks Appalachian with a warm and satisfying twang. I can’t swear to the exactitude of the dialect, but I’d bet that Taber is from a place where we pronounce it “Appa-latch-uh” and not “Appa-lay-shuh.”

Fifteen-year-old Wren Bird lives with her parents outside Trap, W.Va., an “exit off an exit” where “men slip serpents through their fingers on Sunday mornings and pray for God to show Himself,” while “wives wash their husbands’ underpants.” Wren’s father, Briar, is one of these preachers, although his temper flares if Wren calls him a snake handler. It’s “taking up serpents,” he instructs. “The first thing my father taught me,” Wren recalls, “is that a snake is not a snake. It’s an agile tapestry, a piece of the wild you can hold in your hand.”

Briar is known outside Trap as White Eye, having been struck by lightning as a young man, losing most of his sight in one eye and gaining the faith of those who believed he’d been burned with hot coal by an angel while he slept.

Wren’s best friend is her mother, Ruby, “the dawn of everyone’s morning,” but Ruby’s best friend is Ivy — a lifelong bond both daughter and husband envy. When they were young, Ruby and Ivy made a plan to escape Trap together — to “dump their fathers’ bottles of whiskey and disappear without a note” — but instead Ruby fell for Briar, the day he was blighted by lightning and became a legend.

Ivy also marries, and stays on the mountain to be near her friend, but as an adult confesses a thwarted desire to be “good at something besides making babies.” Though she is far from the only mountain woman who “went to bed with a man … and woke up with a boy,” Ivy, Wren observes, “didn’t bear it as well as my mother did.”

There is tremendous pain in the arc of Ivy and Ruby’s intertwined lives, from childhood traumas to marital disappointment, resulting in the sad summation that neither woman “feared the end of her life as much as she feared the length of it.” Trap is a place where a husband is just one more child for his wife to take care of, and where women make do or do without. Burns skillfully shows that women who are often accused of lacking agency in fact make difficult decisions based on a severe “poverty of choice.”

At first Wren idolizes her “mystical” father with a desperate longing, especially when he holds a serpent. “Venomous snakes turned to silk in his hands,” she says. “He treated them the way I wanted him to treat me — with tenderness and wonder.”

Unfortunately for Wren, the snakes fare better. And a copperhead that shows up in the first act is going to bite by the third. Like the women a generation before her, Wren too hates that “mountain men steered their own stories, and women were their oars,” and she promises to “bear witness” to her mother’s stories, “and to tell my own.”

This intricate novel is that wrenching testament, told in language as incandescent as smoldering coal. When Ivy burns herself on Ruby’s soap-making pot, Briar seemingly heals her; but his “miracle” ensnares the three women in a tangle of secrets and lies that will end in the downfall of a “mountain magician.”

No novel is flawless, and neither is this one. A couple of subplots are patiently developed but hastily resolved. Most of the male characters remain opaque, with murky motivations. But this doesn’t detract from the cumulative power of Burns’s intergenerational story of women who get by on grit and find nourishment in friendship. “Shiner” sings when Wren breaks free of her family trappings, and embraces school and love — and storytelling.

Despite the plot’s violence and death, this is not a despairing book, but a hopeful one, of Appalachian women taking back their life stories from hoggish men whose power, both in the home and outside of it, is largely an illusion. Neither grim cliché nor opportunistic elegy, “Shiner” is something far more raw, and more honest. One character’s reaction to tasting moonshine sums up the bracing effect of this novel. “Christ on the cross,” she says. “That’s strong.”


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