Review: Children of the Country by Abigail Shaffer
Children of the Country
Author: Abigail Shaffer
For most of us, growing up is challenging. We struggle with our identities, our hopes and dreams. We navigate, with varying degrees of success, the social landscape of school. We learn to carve a niche within our own family members, some of whom we like, some of whom we learn to tolerate, but all of whom we depend on in one way another, because we need them. Now imagine handling all of this in a relatively isolated small town where few positive options to better your life exist. What would you be willing to do to chase your dreams? Especially when something awful happens to a member of your family, an event that will forever change the direction of your lives?
Such is the set-up of Abigail Shaffer’s Children of the Country, an engaging, nimble (and at times dark) story of characters struggling to get by in the backwoods of Southern Arkansas.
Sheri, an intellectually stunted woman, is trying to venture out in life, so one night her sister Kelly—with whom she lives—takes her for a night on the town at the local bar, where her subsequent rape sets off a change reaction that draws Kelly’s boyfriend Walter to take revenge. Meanwhile, Kelly’s two young children, Ricky (who soon develops a penchant for starting fires) and his younger sister Cindy Rae (who her family thinks is mute), are trying to figure out what they will be able to get out of this life. Although the story follows the lives of Sheri and Kelly as they struggle through the fallout of the attack, the story very quickly focuses on Cindy Rae—and to a lesser extent Ricky—as she follows Ricky into the drug business, where she keeps books for the local kingpin while Ricky runs the product. Will she ever find her way out of this town, this life, and realize her dream of attending college and making a much different life for herself?
Shaffer wisely chooses a rotating third-person point of view to weave this multi-character tapestry. First, the slight distance provided by the third person allows us enough space to understand what each character is feeling. We experience Carly Rae’s chosen silence yet also observe its impact on her family members. We truly understand Ricky’s choices as he lashes out at the world and various people who have wronged him, yet we appreciate that these aren’t the best choices to make. The third person alignment also allows us to better focus on any one character at important moments. For example, during the attack, we feel Sheri’s confusion and terror. An omniscient narrator would have too easily slipped between characters rather than anchoring us with one character in particular section of the story. Throughout, Shaffer’s nimble prose remains in complete control.
Shaffer also moves deftly between characters without losing any narrative momentum. The sections are often compact—a few pages at a time—and this structure allows us to develop connections with these characters in bursts before moving on. Rather than sacrificing depth by not providing long stretches with any one character, Shaffer chooses strong moments to show how these characters are evolving throughout the story. By doing this, the story stays fresh throughout. The use of present tense further adds to this brisk pace.
The ultimate effect here conveys the very real, very honest feelings these characters experience of feeling lost and, often, alone, especially Cindy Rae, who is reaching for any and every opportunity to work her way out of this life.
Given the strengths of the book, there are a few—albeit minor—hiccups. I questioned the use of sections in the book. Typically, sections serve as strong units of development. Shaffer separates the story into two parts. However, this didn’t seem to add much—the first seventy-one pages are devoted to building the story and characters while the longer second part (72-248) delivers on the plot set in motion. You could ignore this simple division and the story doesn’t change.
I also wasn’t sure how to feel about the ending. Since so much of the emphasis is on Carly Rae through much of the book, the ending understandably centers on her—and this works for what Shaffer has put in play. However, the death of another character happens so quickly that we don’t see how this impacts her—nor the other members of the family, all of whom will be affected. And since we are invited to be invested in their emotional lives, this seemed to matter. The two other characters who do get attention in the moment aren’t the ones that matter as much. This left me wanting more, as if the story still had more to say. Still, the ending image suggests that Carly Rae is in a stronger, more in control place in her life. Perhaps this is what the story had to say. Given the messy details of the lives these characters lived, another ending would have been too forced, too neat, and, even, too cliché.
Given the exceptional use of details throughout, which often paint such clear pictures with a simple, non-cliché phrase, it’s hard to knock the choice Shaffer makes to close the story. Life’s not easy, so what do people do with the choices at their disposal? The book is a respectable debut by a writer who will surely build on this promising novel.
Reviewed for the SFWP Quarterly by Brad Windhauser.
Originally from Southern California, Brad Windhauser lives in Philadelphia. He is the author of Regret and The Intersection. Follow him on Twitter @VirgoWriter , Facebook @BradWindhauserAuthor, and at his website BradWindhauser.com.