THIS WEEK’S OTHER FEATURED BOOKS, “SCORCHED EARTH, ALIEN WONDERS,” BY DELILAH JEAN WILLIAMS AND “THE UN-FAMILIAR,” BY LYNNE HINKEY,
CAN BE FOUND BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST.
THE BOOK: Shrapnel
PUBLISHED IN: 2012
THE AUTHOR: Marie Manilla
THE EDITOR: Robin Hollamon Miura
THE PUBLISHER: River City Publishing. Shrapnel won the press’s Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. The judge was Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish.
SUMMARY: Shrapnel is a family saga exploring the legacy of war in three generations of men from the Butler family. Bing Butler, a seventy-seven-year-old, right-wing widower and World War II veteran from Texas, reluctantly moves in with his feminist, antiwar daughter in West Virginia. Here he is forced to bury painful family secrets and stifle his tendencies toward racism, classism, and homophobia. His post-9/11 anxieties equally force him to grapple with these psychological foibles, as his daughter’s only son rallies to enlist to serve overseas. Bing had once embraced such patriotic fervor, but after bullying his own son into going to Vietnam, he finds he must now muster a kind of emotional bravery he never knew he was capable of in order to keep the family together. At turns funny and at other turns frightening (and frighteningly honest), Shrapnel is surprising and ultimately greatly rewarding.
THE BACK STORY: This novel began as a short story I wanted to include in a collection I was assembling (Still Life with Plums). I am a West Virginia native, but I lived in Houston for several years, so I wanted the collection to reflect my two geographic homes. Though initially I was stunned by the way some Texans (certainly not all) stereotyped me as an ignorant Appalachian, I eventually understood that Texans and West Virginians have much in common. We’re both fiercely independent and suspicious of outsiders. I wanted to write a story about a Texan whose head is filled with Appalachian stereotypes who moves to West Virginia. The story would be an opportunity to explode some of those worn-out preconceptions, but confirm others—since often stereotypes are rooted in fact. It was also a chance to show how Texans are also pigeonholed as good-old-boy galoots. After I wrote the story (called “Caving”) I understood that it was the first chapter of a novel.
WHY THIS TITLE? Though the cover and title might suggest that this will be a war novel filled with combat scenes, it’s actually a novel about how one family does (or doesn’t) deal with the loss of a son in Vietnam. The title refers to the emotional shrapnel the father and sister of the dead boy have carried all these years. They nurse other wounds, too, regarding their roles as husband, father, daughter. Their guilt and grief have caused them to inflict additional damage on each other. By the novel’s end, however, healing finally begins.
WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT: This is a novel about healing, but it’s also about how gender roles can stunt relationships. Men like Bing Butler did not talk about feelings, did not openly grieve, did not console. These “suck it up” attitudes have caused much harm. Shrapnel shines a light on this, but it also shows the courage one man has to break through seven decades of societal training to offer grace to his family and to himself. This novel is also about tolerance; about understanding that often hate of “others” is fear-based. Once we connect with “others” as human beings, we often see that we are more alike than different.
“Marie Manilla’s Shrapnel is a Fathers and Sons for our time. It’s a novel about generational, political, and geographical differences and what it takes to bridge them. It’s a novel about the past and the past’s refusal to remain safely buried. And it’s a novel about journeys—its protagonist’s certainly, but all of ours—toward discovery, humility, and wonder. Perhaps Shrapnel’s greatest pleasure is the way it’s told—vividly and with evocative portraits of people and places—and with wisdom—and with gentle and welcome humor.”
–Mark Brazaitis, author of The Incurables and River of Lost Voices.
“From the opening pages, where we find Bing Butler selling off the remnants of his life at a yard sale, Shrapnel takes us on a journey through the reshaping of the American family and American community. Texan, veteran, working man, husband—the life that Bing had imagined for himself has exploded, and he will have to assemble a new one from the shards, far across the country in West Virginia, a place known only through jokes and stereotypes. This crotchety Candide will be led astray and will experience terrible, ordinary betrayals on his way to a future he’d not imagined. This is a sensitively wrought first novel with characters you’ll long remember.”
–Val Neiman, author of Blood Clay
“Bing Butler is a man attempting to reconcile living between two worlds, and his is a life that illustrates beautifully the contradictions of living. How do we understand the actions of our lives? How do we come to terms with the tragedies of our historical eras? What are the secrets, the unknowable things about even those we are closest to, love the most? All these questions are skillfully threaded into this novel about a man forced by age and circumstance to leave one life and his attempts to live in harmony in a new world. Manilla gives us rich characters who populate the physical landscapes of Bing Butler: Texas and West Virginia. His worlds, both past and present, are infused with memories, and the author is masterful in her exploration of his inner landscapes of grief, guilt, and love.”
–Gail Galloway Adams, author of The Purchase of Order
“Bing’s attitude is one we initially want to scoff at in order to find a way to tolerate his ways…But life isn’t that simple, particularly for our war heroes who’ve seen and done things we citizens can’t imagine, all for our greater liberty. We must slow down, listen to each other, particularly when someone’s viewpoint differs from our own—that’s the only time we can truly learn from each other. Marie Manilla does a fantastic job in Shrapnel of reminding us of exactly that incredibly human activity.”
–Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish
AUTHOR PROFILE: Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her novel The Patron Saint of Ugly, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), won the Weatherford Award. Shrapnel (RCP, 2012), received the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories from her collection, Still Life with Plums (WVU Press, 2010) first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, Calyx, and other journals. Marie teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: As a West Virginia native, I admit that I have a chip on my shoulder. I’m often waiting for someone to take a derogatory potshot at my home state. Yes, we have more than our share of problems, but what state doesn’t? I’m weary of West Virginians being the butt of so many worn-out jokes. I can’t help but use my fiction to paint a fuller portrait of who we are. It’s true that we have rich coal mining and timber cultures, and many fine writers have explored those woods. I, however, was born in Huntington, once the largest city in the state. Thus, my experiences were more urban than rural. I want to highlight that. I want to show readers college-educated, middle-income families, because that’s Appalachia too. In my newest novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly, I created a whole new mythology about West Virginia—a common device in magical realism (and Patron Saint if full of evil-eye magic and Sicilian lore) so that readers will see us in a new way.
SAMPLE CHAPTER: “Caving,” the first chapter of Shrapnel, appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of South Writ Large.
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