In Amy Jo Burns’ lyrical first novel, the sheltered life of 15-year-old Wren Bird bursts open under the weight of family secrets hidden deep in the mountain hollers of West Virginia.
Wren is the daughter of snake-handling preacher Briar Bird, who holds services in an abandoned gas station outside of the appropriately named town of Trap. Local lore says Briar lost sight in one eye during his youth after being struck by lightning, an incident that has granted him mythical status in his small congregation.
The superstitious Briar is protective of Wren and his wife, Ruby, forcing them to live in seclusion. Their main contact with the outside world is through Ivy, Ruby’s lifelong friend. When Ivy trips on the hem of her dress and falls into an open fire, Briar heals her by hovering his hands over her body and whispering in her ear. This apparent miracle enhances Briar’s reputation, but it also further distances him from Ruby, who resents the isolation he has imposed on his family and now fears Ivy is becoming Briar’s acolyte.
As Wren tries to grasp the consequences of her father’s miraculous intervention, she delves into the story of her mother, how Ruby met Briar and the traumatic events that took place on the eve of their wedding day. Burns intersperses Wren’s first-person narration with the backstory of how Ivy and Ruby’s friendship blossomed, and how Briar and his childhood friend Flynn grew apart. Through this kaleidoscopic approach, Burns gives each of her characters the opportunity to shine. Wren learns more about her mother’s past by uncovering an unsent letter Ivy wrote to Ruby, and these revelations solidify Wren’s image of her mother as a strong woman whose will has been suppressed by solitude. Wren begins to gain her own sense of agency as she faces the future.
Burns—whose first book, Cinderland (2014), is a haunting memoir of growing up in a deindustrialized town in western Pennsylvania—is clearly no stranger to Appalachia. Her evocative, poetic prose contrasts with the gritty world of snake handlers, moonshiners and opioids. At times reminiscent of books by Bonnie Jo Campbell and Ron Rash, Shiner is a powerful novel of generations linked by trauma, and of the hope and resilience needed to break a cycle of misery.