True to its billing as an “unflinching debut,” Abigail R. Shaffer’s stylish, provocative Children of the Country is as hard-hitting as many of its cold-blooded, barbarically uncouth male characters who dominate its vast, untamed wooded landscape. Set in a depressed blue-collar community in the isolated backcountry of Arkansas, the novel depicts inhabitants’ struggles with drugs, abuse, and discrimination, and their search for an escape from deprivation and a foreseeable life of crime. At the center of it all are two hapless children, Ricky and Cindy Rae, who are so well-defined and deserving of our pity that you immediately feel deep concern for them and become invested in their story. Ricky, to whom we are first introduced when he is eight years old, is an antisocial, forest-dwelling, dig-in-the-dirt type of boy who spends most of his time playing in the woods bordering their property. He often plays truant from school, in part to avoid neighbor Harold Pointer’s two middle school boys, Taylor and Dylan, who taunt and persecute him whenever he tries to board the school bus. Instead of the classroom, Ricky’s education comes from Every Man’s Survival Guide, a book he’s purloined from a thrift store, which teaches him pioneering skills like how to set up squirrel traps and “how to protect a cache of matches from outside elements.” Largely neglected by his mother and ostracized by those at his school, Ricky fends for himself and bonds solely with his quiet, autistic five-year-old sister, becoming the overly protective big brother.
Despite the many unsavory characters and harsh situations, Children of the Country is an emotionally rewarding, captivating family saga. Abigail R. Shaffer’s exquisite lyrical prose and refreshingly bold storytelling marks this as a notable debut, one as vivid and imposing as its wooded backcountry setting.
(Outpost19 , paperback, $15.29)
Published today in the Colorado Review is my review of Abigail R. Shaffer’s fine debut novel, Children of the Country. You can access the full, in-depth book review here.