Novel Examines Rural Seclusion, Resilience of Women

In her new book, "Shiner," Amy Jo Burns wanted to tell a story of “people who feel forgotten in a forgotten place.”

Images courtesy of Riverhead Books

A section of the Appalachian Trail passes through the northwest corner of New Jersey, but our state and Appalachia are otherwise worlds apart.

Author Amy Jo Burns, who lives in the Somerset County community of Franklin Park with her husband and two children, knows the difference intimately. Burns grew up in a faith-healing church in an Appalachian industrial town in Western Pennsylvania, an experience she chronicled in her 2014 memoir, Cinderland (Beacon Press).

Burns returns to Appalachia in her latest book, Shiner, due May 5 from Riverhead Books. Set in the mountains of West Virginia, Burns’s debut novel confronts the impact of rural seclusion on one young person’s world and the tragedies that can occur when women keep secrets from each other.

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“This is a story about untold histories between mothers and daughters, and what’s at stake when you don’t talk about it,” says Burns.

The setting was key, says Burns, who—especially after the 2016 presidential election—wanted to tell a story of “people who feel forgotten in a forgotten place.” Shiner is set against a backdrop of moonshine makers and snake handlers, but its narrative about women’s resilience and perseverance is universal.

Researching the moonshine aspect of her novel was a special challenge. While writing the book, she says, “I was pregnant twice and nursing a baby twice, so I had to get creative with it.” She and her husband visited several distilleries in West Virginia. “It was less about the taste for me,” she says, “and more about seeing it all as a work of art.”

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