Book Review

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.

In one pitiful scene, he walks with Cindy Rae to the bus stop, sees the Pointer boys, and drags her into a ditch knee-deep with floodwater that is “teeming with bugs, slime, and all manner of critters Ricky would normally love to fool with” to avoid being seen. Squatting low behind scraggly briars and beside a drainage pipe, they wait in silence for the boys to pass, but are spotted and attacked:

Ricky does his best to shove Cindy Rae further inside the drainpipe, keeping his footing, and deflect the rock-spiked mud balls from hitting his face. He falls forward and Dylan grabs his shoulders. Dylan and Taylor alternately punch him and rub slimy mud any place they can get their hands on.

Unlike his sister—who befriends the new girl at school, Treecie (a sad figure whom Ricky grows to worship but who later rejects his love and turns to prostitution), and embraces the girl’s caregiver, Granny June (an old lady with “crazy hair” who sits in a weathered rocking chair on her front porch wearing “a blue dress that looks like a Civil War costume and just as old”), as her substitute mother—there aren’t any authority figures in Ricky’s life. His mother, Kelly, a heavy-smoking alcoholic, works long hours as a waitress at a fast-food restaurant and hasn’t much time or predilection for parenting. The mother and children share a ramshackle home with Sheri, Kelly’s mean-spirited, eccentric younger sister, and Walter, Kelly’s aggressive, crippled live-in boyfriend. None serve as decent role models and, sadly, their life decisions have a scarring effect on Ricky.

In fact, Walter is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the ugly, squalid environment Shaffer presents—a community filled with dangerous drug dealers and damaged, deadbeat people who reek of despair and disappointment and 100-proof liquor. Having injured his back in a fall from a forklift, Walter is tormented by a recurring “thick catch of pain at the base of his spine” that causes him “to damn near fall to his knees, lose his bowels, when it decides to act up.” Kelly and her children are the closest thing he has to a family. But the sympathetic qualities with which Shaffer imbues him quickly disintegrate when he confronts a youth who has sexually assaulted Kelly’s sister, Sheri, in the bathroom of a grim old roadhouse that is “a go to hang-out for sundry no counts and drunks, a rough tussle out back settling most grievances.” The unyielding, brutal violence Walter unleashes on the youth is shockingly sadistic and merciless and without compunction:

His own knuckles bloodied, raw, he keeps swinging, nice initial form with the left and right hooks gradually devolving into dull, 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 old-time graveyards, the weight of soil finally bearing down.

The lifeless carcass, flung into a swamp and abandoned, is never recovered, and Walter is never punished for his crime. However, his subsequent decision to go into hiding, abandoning Kelly when she needs him most, destroys their relationship and is a cause of regret for Walter.

Throughout the novel there’s a prevailing sense of doom; a gnawing sensation in the pit of your stomach that Ricky is on a disastrous predestined path. Ten years after Sheri’s assault and Walter’s disappearance, Ricky’s situation has further deteriorated. He has been in and out of a rehabilitation center for arson attacks on his school and on Harold Pointer’s property. Although fortunate in avoiding juvenile detention only because he has not previously committed a crime and nobody has been hurt, the rehabilitation center introduces him to Jake, another outsider and misfit, just like him, and you might argue that this friendship marks Ricky’s inevitable decline into more serious and dangerous crime.

Perhaps the only character with any glimmer of hope is Cindy Rae, who, at age fifteen, is no longer a silent, detached, introverted little girl, but has blossomed into a pretty, communicative, and optimistic young woman, striving to escape her surroundings and possibly go to college. A prisoner of her environment and haunted by the past, her best chance of escape seems to be through reconciliation with Walter, who suddenly resurfaces at a vital moment in her life. Unfortunately, since Walter is still a magnet for violence and tragedy, and considering the bleak tone of the novel, there can be no happy ending for any of these wretched people.

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.

About the Reviewer

Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the popular literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of a suspense novel, and editor of six literary anthologies. Originally from England, he has worked in various countries as, among other things, a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. He lives in western New York with his wife and two children.