Apr 28, 2020
"Shiner" sings like a murder ballad
"I wanted to write a book about legends and myths, as they relate to religion and maybe faith in America, but I wanted to do it in a way that felt like a myth itself. Or like a murder ballad," Amy Jo Burns said of her new novel, 'Shiner.' Now based in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two young children, Burns grew up in the wilds of Western Pennsylvania in Mercer Township, about an hour north of the city, equidistant between Slippery Rock and Grove City, population 1,200.
She and her family attended pentacostal church until she was about 12 years old. Faith healing churches fall outside the average American experience of worship and exist most often in rural areas, dotted through Appalachia.
"I felt such a tension about people speaking in tongues and laying hands on people. I couldn't do those things. I never wanted to do those things. But everything else I've read about that sort of faith feels very outside looking in -- I never felt like anything in fiction captured what it was like to live inside that culture," she said.
In 'Shiner' (to be released May 12th by Riverhead Books), Burns moves around inside the strangeness that makes people uncomfortable and blinds them to the appeal for true believers. There is a sense of mystery in this brand of faith, a feeling of being both sacred and special. Those are strong pulls. The dangerous and illogical can be tut-tutted away by those absolute in their faith.
"What's foolish to the world is holy in God's eyes," Burns explained.
The novel is set in an untamed, remote corner of West Virginia where Wren Bird lives with her parents, Ruby and Briar. The closest neighbor is Ruby's lifelong friend Ivy, who lives about a mile and a half away but visits daily. Briar Bird is a preacher. He believes in taking small amounts of arsenic as part of his religious practice; he is a faith-healer and snake handler whose congregation meets in an abandoned gas station. He doesn't believe in western medicine or doctors or modernity, and the further he can get his people (both his immediate family and his flock) from the reaches of contemporary civilization, the better.
Preacher Briar believes he is special -- believes that he is actually marked by God. His mother says, 'he is going to save this mountain.' It leads the reader to all wonder what it might mean to save a place? What are the multiple conversations and meanings we can be having, even as we use the same words?
Burns is able to explore questions which often go unasked. What does it mean to be saved? What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to be a godly person?
"In my experience with evangelical men, or maybe I should say, pentacostal men, they were not concerned at all about kindness or even about other people. All they were concerned about was how God was manifesting his presence in some way. What did that look like? That meant healing people from limps and aches and pains, or saying someone was absolved of their sins. I don't know why they sort of missed the message on all the other things -- why they missed the core of Jesus' message," she said.
A balance to Briar, to his self-absorption and ego, is his wife. A mountain woman, Ruby is steeped in the old ways; she makes soap by hand and knows all the local flora and fauna. She knows which herbs can be used to heal and treat sickness, and she knows how to build things, how to make things, and how to make do.
"I was interested in exploring some kind of story that was about a man of great faith who had this legend about him, but it was the women around him who paid the price for it. That was the theme I felt really deeply in my heart," Burns said.
The story is largely told from the point of view of Wren, the daughter and one of the women who pays this price. You also get the story of the titular moonshiner, his love of his craft and his relationships to Ruby, Briar, Wren and the place. The writing about the moonshine and how it is uniquely of this region are some of the most beautiful in the book.
Burns' previous book, 'Cinderland,' (Beacon Press, 2014) is a memoir about a very specific time in her childhood and a local piano teacher who had sexually assaulted several of his female students. That book digs at the price paid by the girls who came forward, how they were ostracized, and how lying, or staying quiet, was rewarded. This is a truth that most women and girls have faced at some point in our lives. It is especially true within the confines of fundamentalist religions of any stripe.
'Shiner' deals with some of these themes, but also grapples with the pull of the place, even when it's a hard place to live. It understands the pull of a man like Briar, even though he's a hard man to love. And it honors the strength of the women in this untamed, rugged land.
"You hear those stories and it's always about the man, it's always about the preacher. But there was a woman and what was her story? What was her life? That's what I wanted to write about," Burns said.
This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Current on April 28, 2020
Author photo by Howie Chen