Imagine if each of us walked around with the pain we carry inside all fully transparent–we’d look a lot like bobbing heads atop Swiss cheese since our losses are many, and our inner selves still raw with ache.
So when I picked up a debut novel with the intriguing title NORTHERN LIGHTS, I met a slew of characters with Swiss cheese for guts–people trying and dying to fill up all the empty spaces inside.
Especially Shane Stephenson, whose story opens in 1997.
Title is linked to Amazon and there are no spoilers ahead:
New high school graduate, Shane Stephenson, has a lot on his plate.
Sure, he had a needs-based college scholarship come fall, but for now, he has a crap-sandwich.
His dad has just died, his uncle kicks him out, and his mother–well, she took off nine years ago and he’s only heard from her once in all the years since.
What’s a kid to do? Road trip.
He packs a few outfits, his old Nintendo, and some cash that he’s squirreled away and takes off to small-town Holt, Minnesota in search of his mother.
Holt is as strange to Shane as he is to Holt. Although he is accepted by a handful of ragtag teens and manages to score a place to stay and a job, his long hair and androgyny makes him a target of the sadistic town-bully, Sven Svenson.
Ethereal, beautiful Jenny introduces him to her group of friends who, in turn, introduce Shane to drugs–things rapidly escalate from alcohol and marijuana to speed and meth.
Thankfully, Shane has a strong work ethic and ally in his boss, Leon. But trouble looms. All while Shane is trying to figure out if he is attracted to Jenny or if drunkard Russell is more his type. He’s never been kissed, but that’s about to change.
This story is an Odyssey of sorts. Our hero goes on a quest, finds himself pulled in many directions, and getting involved in experiences that threaten every aspect of his existence.
And I couldn’t put it down.
This is a coming-of-age story in which a young man must try to find answers to his mother abandoning him as well as questions of his own sexuality and his place in this world.
You know, I don’t buy into all this gender-fluidity and non-binary talk that is popular of late–yeah, I just don’t think God makes mistakes when it comes to a person’s hard-wired gender.
But I can relate to a character who has everything going against him and still finds a reason to press on. And for that reason, this book speaks to me.
The drug use in the book is disturbing but authentic for the times. The sexual content is usually not graphic and emphasizes tenderness and feeling rather than mechanics–although there are a few scenes involving minor characters that are just over-the-top gross.
I originally picked up this book off the library shelf because the title reminded me of my home state, Minnesota. I remember seeing the Northern Lights back when I was a kid.
Plus, the kid pictured on the cover reminded me of one of my sons. Long hair don’t care.
Anyway, I’ve never been to Holt, but I know it well. It reminded me of Moose Lake, Minnesota, a likewise tiny Northern-Minnesota town where my grandparents lived and my father grew up. Last time I was there, I was Shane’s age, eighteen, and the kids I met there were similar to the kids Shane meets in Holt.
Non-Minnesoteans may question how welcoming the teens are to outsider Shane, but not me–I can attest to having the same type of experience as an outsider visiting a small Minnesota town.
Except back in the 70’s, beer, pot and cigarettes were the extent of the young people’s rebellion (perhaps boredom would be a better descriptor.) Shane’s experiences in 1997 are another matter entirely.
Parts of this story were sad and disturbing, but there was something endearing and compelling about this young man, and I found myself rooting for Shane to come out of this eighteenth summer in one piece–found myself wondering if he would make it to college in the fall.
I really liked this book. It is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in recent memory. It is disturbing and poignant and satisfying. My only criticism is that several characters were able to click their drug and alcohol abuse on and off without much struggle–that’s just not realistic and sends young readers the wrong message. Plus, without the sole two minor male hetero characters who were normal (Leon and the Sheriff), the rest of the male heteros portrayed herein represent the very worst our team has to offer.
Still, NORTHERN LIGHTS is a worthwhile read that will appeal to both males and females, cis-gender and non-binary alike. (Can’t believe those two terms just came out of baby-boomer/mid-century modern-me. Yikes!) FYI: Young Adult readers may have to look for this title on the Adult shelf at your library–appropriately so.
Foxy Writer Rating Scale – Four out of Five Foxes