This was an accidental choice, but it’s turned out to be a fairly happy accident. Which is a bit of a coincidence, as the book was accidentally announced as a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Despite the error having been made internally, Myracle had to withdraw from the contest. She did so, but requested that they make a donation to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, to support their work to erase hate, which the National Book Foundation did. For our reading challenge, Shine has turned out to be a decent choice for a Young Adult or Young Reader’s book for North Carolina.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting really comes to life, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are trying to finish up North Carolina right now.

After realizing that all of my choices for books set in western North Carolina are, in fact, set in the very same county, I was a bit reluctant to have my Young Reader’s book also be set in the same area and even more so since all four are also historical. So when I stumbled across this one I decided to add it.

It’s still actually set not too far from Asheville–one town resident is mentioned as working as a nanny for a family in Asheville; from the context it sounds like Asheville is probably just on the outside of a reasonable commute from the town where the book takes place–and it’s not clear in which direction. The town of Black Creek and the neighboring small city of Toomsboro are both fictional, but the two locations allow Myracle to contrast life in small rural mountain towns and somewhat larger cities in western and central North Carolina. In the scenes with the character Jason, she examines the prejudices against the people who live in the mountains or their foothills–along with some of the truths behind the stereotypes.

The poverty of Cat’s town is rooted in a string of bad luck–it was cut off from the main commerce route when the railroad connected nearby towns but bypassed Black Creek (think of the premise behind the movie Cars, but set in the east rather than along Route 66). Then, more recently, the paper mill, that employed many of the residents, closed.

Tommy’s great-great-great-grandfather was one of the first people to homestead Black Creek, way back when it was a decent trading post. Then a railroad was laid between two bigger settlements, and suddenly there was a lot less traffic through Black Creek. The final blow came when the TVA dam was built on Brigham River. The dam cut off Black Creek from the other towns, because who in his right mind would drive an extra twenty miles around the new man-made lake to reach what was nearly a ghost town already?

Lauren Myracle in Shine

Meth seems to fill a gap on both sides–providing some much needed income for some, and sucking the little remaining income from others. The young people who deal seem to be caught as much as the desperate folks who are using in order to escape.

There’s a lot of bleakness here–a lot of people wanting to escape, and a lot to escape from. There’s meth, alcoholism, grinding poverty, sexual assault, and, of course, the LGBQT discrimination and hate crime that the story is centered around. Cat is pretty hard on herself for “abandoning” her friendship with Patrick, but her withdrawal, and her self-shaming and self-blaming are very typical responses to trauma. Aunt Tildy’s response to that trauma is harder to take, though unfortunately it’s also believable.

“But . . . I don’t want it to be like that,” I whispered. “You think that matters, what you want?” she said. “Where’d you get that fool idea?” Though her words stung, she wasn’t trying to be cruel. “No one ever said the world’s an easy place, ’specially for a girl,” she went on. “’ Specially for a pretty girl, and that’s just the way of it, too. If you’re a pretty girl, you’re gonna get . . .” She pressed her lips together. She couldn’t say it, not without scraping off a layer of fresh paint. “Some things ain’t worth dwelling on.”

Lauren Myracle in Shine

In Shine, author Lauren Myracle can be pretty heavy-handed at times, laying it on thick. In some ways that seems pretty typical for books for younger readers–and despite the heavy topics it felt like this book was written for a high school audience. Perhaps these authors are hoping for their books to be accepted into a forward-thinking school curriculum by discussing topics that are pertinent to the students and their communities, but tackled in a way that’s acceptable to adults. Cat is very clear throughout that meth is bad, even though she understands the reasons that some of the other characters slipped into using.

I told him about Wally the meth cooker, and he said meth had spread like poison ivy through his hometown, too. His sister-in-law lost her kids to it. A cousin had nubs for hands because of a meth-cooking explosion. Even so, she was still a user. She gripped a tiny silver spoon between her pawlike hands while her boyfriend held the lighter beneath.

Lauren Myracle in Shine

In our review of John Hart’s Redemption Road, we discussed redemption for perpetrators of sexual assault and rape, and we see a bit of this again in Shine. Several of the reviews I read complained about how “easy” it was for the perpetrator to gain Cat’s forgiveness. I’m not sure I’d agree–Myracle has him being truthful about it with his girlfriend (without any prompting from Cat), and the couple asks for Cat’s forgiveness. However, they didn’t ask for that forgiveness until confronted and in a dangerous situation; and Cat does seem to give that forgiveness pretty easily. There is also no discussion of reparations either to Cat herself or through community works. But by the time this scene occurs, Cat has come through her own growth and has become a survivor rather than a victim–she is ready to move on. When she confronts them, she isn’t interested in her own past with him–she’s interested in what happened to Patrick and how the perpetrator might be involved in having hurt her friend. In forgiving him, she’s also recognizing that her own experience has made her want to blame him for something he didn’t do.

For the purposes of our reading challenge, most of the setting we get in Shine has more to do with the people–deep rooted provincialism, distrust of both the “other” and the “system,” attitudes between country folk and townsfolk, religious beliefs–than the physical setting, but that’s there too in places.

[Patrick and me would go] breaking ivy for Aunt Tildy and Mama Sweetie. They used the ivy to make wreaths, which they sold to fancy ladies in Toomsboro. In the winter, Mama Sweetie added holly berries to hers, as well as those pointy holly leaves. Then they were Christmas wreaths. Patrick and me preferred to use the holly leaves as pretend needles. We’d play doctor, but not like you think. We didn’t take our clothes off. We said, “Time for your shot. Be brave so you can get your lollipop.” Our lollipops were pretend, too. Once, in early April, we were out collecting ivy and we got lost in a laurel thicket. Laurel branches grew twisty and gnarled, and if you got stuck in a patch, the overgrowth was so thick you couldn’t see the sky. We knew we’d blunder out eventually, but for then, all we could see were laurel branches behind us and in front of us and above us. It was like we’d been spirited into a fairyland.

Lauren Myracle in Shine

Or in this description of the swimming hole:

On the close side of the swimming hole, the bank was flat and level, like a beach made of mud and stones. The stones were smooth, but they came in all different shapes and sizes, and they jabbed the flesh of your soles like nobody’s business. The river water was cool and green, flowing so slow that it was perfect for splashing around in. … On the far side of the swimming hole, there was no bank. Just the straight-up side of the mountain. It was lush with ferns and ivy and laurel trees, whose gnarled branches made perfect handholds for climbing the footpath to the jumping rock—or if you went higher, to the rock the swimming hole was named for: Suicide Rock.

Lauren Myracle in Shine

We also get some good Southern comfort food in this one, though it’s mostly peripheral.

Aunt Tildy and I cooked up our big Sunday meal: fried chicken, crowder peas, cornbread, and a mess of green beans. Oh, and tomatoes. Had to have tomatoes in the summertime, picked fresh and lightly salted.

Lauren Myracle in Shine

And later, when someone is telling Cat about how one of the older local ladies threw a fit at an Asheville restaurant:

“She was all, ‘Where is my cornbread?’ … The waitress said they’d run out of cornbread, but that they had absolutely delicious homemade yeast rolls. … But nuh-uh, Mrs. Lawson wouldn’t have nothing of it.” “Let me guess. She’d ordered green beans for one of her sides,” I filled in. My aunt Tildy followed the rules about what made a proper meal, and she would sooner do a hula dance in her underwear than put a dish of green beans on her table without a cake of cornbread to keep it company.

Lauren Mryacle in Shine

Myracle also notes how a garden and a cow can allow poor folk to survive on almost nothing: “A man can get by on milk and cheese and a decent vegetable garden, even a dead-broke junkie like Ridings.” We saw this with young Kya, in Where the Crawdads Sing, surviving on her own mostly on the remains of her mother’s garden until she figures out how to get it going again. While subsistence gardens like this seem to come up mostly in Southern books, I feel it’s more of a country thing–it’s something I remember from my mom’s stories of her childhood in upstate New York (and my own to some extent). She’d tell stories of their garden and of her father collecting wild mushrooms to help feed the family. To this day one of my aunts can’t stand mushrooms, as sometimes the specimens he’d collect were… a bit past their prime.

I’m not sure, yet, how North Carolina differs from the other southern states–much as I’m not sure I’m able to differentiate between a Kansas setting and a Nebraska one–but there is definitely a Southern feel to Shine. I’ll be interested to see how the books we read for Alabama and Mississippi differ–from each other and from Georgia and North Carolina. I’m reading Cold Mountain right now, and one of the main characters–Ada–is originally from Charleston, South Carolina. There is more of the city versus country attitudes in her comparisons than any real differences between North and South Carolina. And although the women in Outer Banks were from several different southern states, I wasn’t really able to draw any conclusions from that book either. Their differences had more to do with class. I feel like the books from Georgia were full of pines and some red clay (which we also see here), and fewer mountains. And the North Carolina mountains seem to be more white than might be expected, though the flatlands are not quite so homogeneous. That fits with my memories of West Virginia as well, and I’ll be looking for anything that helps explain that. Perhaps it has to do with the land not being suitable for plantations (or their share cropping successors).

But overall, Shine by Lauren Myracle is a pretty good addition to our reading list for North Carolina. I’m glad I happened across it. I’m working on Cold Mountain right now–which is wonderful for setting–and then I still want to get to one of the books about the Trail of Tears, but I admit I’m getting antsy to move on.