By: Abigail Shaffer
Paperback: 262 pages
Publisher: Outpost19 (November 1, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
Abigail Shaffer, the author of this novel, is a former social worker with roots in the Ozarks, and her background transforms what could have been just another Southern Gothic into a unique work of art. While Children of the Country has plenty of poverty and bad food, run away daddies, and swampland hoodoo, it is also peopled by very real, three dimensional characters who struggle with the kinds of hopes and difficulties many writers overlook. The fifteen year old heroine, Cindy Rae, fights for her heart’s desire — a spot in an academic class instead of more vocational tech. “Well, that’s awful ambitious, don’t you think?” is her advisor’s response. Therein follow two pages of tense sexual politics and gathering rage before she emerges, triumphant, with permission to take trigonometry. Cindy is hungover, and poor, and consorting with dangerous people, but she is also becoming aware of what she wants to do with her life and of what she needs to do to get from where she is to where she wants to be. That she has to fight so hard to be placed into what is the most appropriate math class is a powerful illustration of just how hard her journey will be.
Cindy’s older brother Ricky, on the other hand, is wandering from one rash act to another. When he almost fumbles a chance to become a regular drug courier, Ricky and a friend swear “solemnly, their promise sealed with shots of Wild Turkey, to thoroughly get their heads out of their asses in light of the amount of cash.” Both boys manage, for a while, to make money in a world of muddy back roads, drunken parties, and men with automatic weapons. Though they play out against a lush and sweltering backdrop, the mechanisms of white rural drug dealing appear to be remarkably similar to the depictions of black, urban dealing. The hopelessness is the same too. This is Ricky’s boss, who has failed to make amends with a woman from his past.
All at once he needs to get gone, and wishes he’d tucked his Gobbler under the seat for the long ride home. He looks once at the kids, nodding before backing down the sidewalk, then eases his bum leg and his bum self into his Jeep, thinking of the liquor store he passed on Chicot and how time and remembrance fold over and back in on themselves, in cahoots and thoroughly against him.
Life is hard for middle aged people who end up here; not even righteous violence is pleasurable. Methodically, his fists feel the connection to flesh, the momentary cushion of it, then the hardness of bone. His own knuckles bloodied, raw, he keeps swinging, nice initial heavy pounding. The cheek gives as the bone underneath shatters and the skin sinks in, like the depression of earth over a wooden coffin in oldtime graveyards, the weight of soil finally bearing down. . . He’d always imagined there’d be more of a reckoning at the end.
Although in the course of this novel, they never leave their home, Ricky and Cindy Rae meet their different fates. Their love never waivers, though. They take joy in each other, in the physical beauty of the world around them, and in their own small hopes for the future. This is Ricky after having cleared the air with his sister. In a flash he is eight and Cindy Rae is five, and they are walking to the bus in the high heat of the asshole end of August, her quiet as hell, but beaming up with that pirate smile she had even as a bitty baby, her pudgy fist, sweaty and soft, nestled in his left hand. She was always the morning sun to him, the color of her baby room with the fairy princess crap and that yellow, raggedy stuffed bird she probably still has and sleeps with if he knows a goddamn thing about anything.
Children of the Country is a beautiful book that depicts a hard way of life without ever condescending to the characters or losing sight of their humanity.