There is something magical and a bit thrilling reading the debut novel of an author as brilliant as Raymond Strom, one you know is going to be a rising voice in today’s gritty, contemporary domestic-noir fiction. Northern Lights is a challenging book to read but one that rewards its reader in the end with the satisfaction of knowing characters who are surviving in a world that is meant to cripple or kill them.
The bleakness of that cover underlies the dark ambiance found throughout Northern Lights. Shane is an androgynous youth in search of the mother who abandoned him years before. His father has died and his uncle has thrown him out of their family home. Before he begins university, Shane takes the summer to go to the last known place his mother lived: Holm, Minnesota. The first person he runs into sums up Shane’s entire existence with the question, “are you a boy or a girl?” It’s a question Shane often asks himself – not necessarily about his physical self but who he is psycho-sexually. As he wanders through town searching for his mother, he discovers those who hate him, accept him, wish to kill him, wish to love him and all parts in between. He cobbles together a group of “misfit” friends who live on the fringe of this small town; who exist in the shades of grey and have you questioning if there are real values of black and white. Although set in the time-frame of the early 90s, the novel has the feel of today’s setting with so much division, so much hate and far too much vilifying based on sexual identity and the color of one’s skin.
I read Northern Lights in one sitting. The narrative was tight and flowed in a such a manner that once I began, I couldn’t bring myself to stop reading until I finished. It was difficult – there is nothing lite or pretty about this book. Small town, rural life in middle America is not what it’s cracked up to be, but then I’m not sure life in America anywhere is any more. People are struggling. Our youth, with few exceptions, are struggling and “at risk,” and no one seems to be noticing or caring. It is easier to get immersed in reality television than it is to get involved in reality. That is the ultimate take-away from Northern Lights: look at these kids, see them, understand them. Look at the people in this town. They are all of us. While I know that this book will not be for everyone, of course, I do wish it was required reading for high school students everywhere; for those who need to read books with characters who are like themselves and for those who need to read books to understand the bullies that they have become.
I am grateful to #Netgalley, #RaymondStrom, and @SimonSchuster for allowing me to read and review Northern Lights.
NOTE: I’m also pleased as punch to be participating in two challenges. One is the Netgalley/Edelweiss 2019 challenge and the other is Pop Sugar’s 2019 Reading Challenge. Northern Lights meets the “Debut Author” prompt for that challenge.