The Plot: “Stunned residents of Black Creek, North Carolina, pray for seventeen-year-old Patrick Truman, beaten and left for dead outside the convenience store where he works.” Patrick is, no, was, Cat’s best friend. Three years ago, something happened and Cat reacted by withdrawing from family and friends. Patrick is in a coma, and Cat can’t hide anymore. She has to find out what happened to him, who attacked him, no matter what the cost or where it leads.
The Good: Black Creek, North Carolina is a poor, rural town, a place without jobs, unless it’s making and selling meth. It’s a place, a setting, a culture, that is usually overlooked in literature unless to show “white trash” and make redneck jokes. Yes, there is brutality and drug use and poverty; Cat’s father tells a story of his childhood about rats coming into his room, and his shooting one, and his mother using it for rat stew because why let the meat go to waste?
Myracle does a beautiful job of depicting this rural area and its inhabitants with both compassion and honesty. It’s not entirely hopeless, but neither is it romanticized. Here is Cat: “My heart, as I closed the cabinet and rose to my feet, was a small dead creature. If I could bury it in the woods, I would.”
At this point, there will be spoilers.
I read Shine having read the infamous Wall Street Journal article, so I expected dark. And there are some bad things happening. Some of the “bad things” arise from the poverty of Cat, her family, and most of her peers. I’m a bit uncomfortable with calling an entire socioeconomic segment “bad” and off limits to literature for children and teens. In reading Shine, I was also struck by the warmth and honesty of people like Patrick’s grandmother. This was hardly the bleak place I thought I’d find, having read that article. Yes, some bad things have happened, but to readers who don’t like books where bad things happen (and that’s fine!) this book tells you up front: Patrick has been beaten. Cat is hiding something that has caused her to retreat, to become invisible; it is Patrick’s injury, not her own pain, that triggers her rage that makes her pursue the truth of what happened to Patrick, no matter what.
The author of the WSJ article said that the people of Black Creek “reveal themselves to be in the grip of homophobia, booze and crystal meth.” Well, yes and no. There is homophobia, in some of the responses to the attack on Patrick. The attack is quickly labelled a hate crime, due to “suck this, faggot” being scrawled on his chest. Here’s the thing: yes, Cat relates some fairly hateful treatment of Patrick on his first day of high school, three years before. That was three years ago; at the present time, while Cat and Patrick are no longer close, Patrick has a group of friends that includes Cat’s brother Christian and two of his own former tormentors, Tommy and Beef. Cat learns that there is some true friendship there. “Homophobia” is too easy a word to use for the complex feelings shown. Some people use crystal meth, yes, and their lives are shown to be ruined as a result. Cat’s brother doesn’t use, and others also don’t use. What Myracle does is show that Christian, Tommy and Beef appear to be “redneck bigots,” but once one reads the entire book, it’s not that easy to label them.
Enough of that article; except that, perhaps because of it, the ending of Shine was too hopeful for me. (I know! Me, who loves hope or at least being hopeful). Cat reconnects with those she had severed ties with; and by the end of the book is no longer alone, no longer lonely, no longer isolated, and has brought healing to herself and to others. Healing and forgiveness, of oneself and others, is a big part of the last part of the book. Cat’s world is one where family and friends are important. Forgiveness is necessary for her to move on and still be a part of this community.
Still, I’ll be honest: Cat’s a nicer person than me. I didn’t entirely believe in one character’s change of heart. Part of this may be because, through Cat’s eyes, we see this person primarily at two different points: one, three years ago, when he did something horrible; and now, three years later. I understood that Cat needed to let go and move on, but I wanted something more. Perhaps it’s that three year gap that is a hurdle for me, and without seeing more of that person during that time period (and seeing them without Cat’s emotions and feelings), I just am not convinced by his words. (Readers of this blog know this is hardly the first time (and won’t be the last time) that I want more justice for characters than they do for themselves.)
Cat early on describe herself: “sometimes I felt like my entire existence meant nothing.” For three years, that was how she saw herself and she isolated herself. Because of this, Cat knew who Christian, Tommy, Beef and Patrick were three years ago. Cat’s investigation leads her to discover who these boys are now, years later. That gap in time is needed for the narrative, because (like Veronica Mars) it allows Cat to be both insider and outsider as she investigates Patrick’s attack. Insider, she grew up with these boys; outsider, she’s unaware of what they do now.
Myracle has been very careful in the place she has created, not just in the physical descriptions. Part of the place is the ethics of the people living there, and for Cat, that includes keeping secrets and not involving other people. So, Myracle stays true to her characters and even at the end, while Cat discovers the truth about what happened to Patrick, she and others keep things secret, don’t tell the police, because there is “no reason to complicate things” and protecting reputations, of oneself, of others, is what matters. I disagree; but this isn’t a story about me, it’s about Cat, and given her world, her decisions make sense.