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Review: The Shinnery, by Kate Anger
U. of Nebraska, 2022. 253 pp. $22

The year 1894 has been hard for the Campbell family, Texas farmers struggling to withstand drought, losses from sick livestock, and debt. Seventeen-year-old Jessamine (Jessa), the eldest child still at home, finds out she must leave the farm she loves to take up a position as maidservant to the Martins, owners of the mercantile in Rayner, the nearest town. Jessa can’t understand why her stern but loving father would demand this—while brooking no discussion—when she’s his right hand on the farm.

Nevertheless, Jessa goes to the Martins’, where her employers find fault with her about once a minute, and where she learns the humiliating reason Papa shipped her off. However, that’s not half the story, for the pianist who comes to the Martin residence to teach the elder son his scales takes a shine to Jessa. Since Will Keyes (unsubtle name) is twenty-two, good-looking, glib from experience in the world—his main gig is at his elder brother’s saloon—you know he can play Jessa any tune he likes, and she’ll think it’s beautiful. You can also guess the consequences, even if you haven’t read the overly revealing blurb on the jacket flap.

Too bad about that blurb, whose clumsy phrases fail to convey the novel’s drive and fresh aspects, the chief attractions of The Shinnery (so titled for the shin oaks on the Campbell farm). You’d never know how the author twists the predictable, makes it her own, and ratchets up the tension. “No—and furthermore” thrives here, and the pages turn. Part of that comes from how the reader can spot Will as a fake from a country mile off, but Jessa can’t.

Shinnery oak, Quercus havardii, along a west Texas highway. A shrub rather than a tree, the plant is poisonous to livestock during a phase of its growth cycle but also protects the soil from erosion and provides habitat for wild animals (courtesy Dylan W. Schwilk, 2011, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

And when she does pick up currents that seem unjust or threatening, she can’t say so, as when her father tells her she’s heading to the Martins’:

She wasn’t quick with words like her sisters. Feelings and ideas would get stuck on the other side of her voice, no words to carry them across. Or she’d start talking and her words would fail, trail off, evaporate, everyone staring at her, waiting. Papa wasn’t in a waiting mood. He seemed uncomfortable, brushing dust that wasn’t there from his britches.

Unfortunately, the characterizations fall short, particularly those of the numerous villains. Martin’s wife, to name one, has another dimension behind her hectoring, social-climber facade, but her husband, though suitably threatening, has none. Other depictions feel inconsistent, even of the good guys, and the conflicts I’d expect either dissipate or never emerge. For instance, if Jessa’s that starved for warmth and affection, leaving her easy pickings for Will—perhaps too easy—I don’t see how she can connect with her parents as wholeheartedly or deeply as she does.

I can believe she’d redouble her efforts to please them, because emotionally hungry children do. But that longing—and resentment—have to go somewhere, and though Will offers an outlet, I wanted more of her feelings of betrayal kicking around.

That’s why the novel’s resolution, whose events seem mostly credible, still doesn’t quite work for me; I think the characters accept what befalls them too easily, maybe predictably. The story has ugly elements the author wishes to redeem, but that must be earned, and it shouldn’t happen simply to please the reader.

I also sense that Anger wants to explain everything, as though the reader won’t believe the words otherwise, a tic that comes through in the storytelling. Often, a character will say or do something, and the text will provide a reason, when it’s already clear.

To be fair, The Shinnery offers an utterly gripping feminist narrative: men treating women like chattels, even their own daughters. It’s hard to beat that, and to her credit, Anger keeps raising the stakes for Jessa, meanwhile conveying the social and political atmosphere in which the woman’s always to blame. As I read, I compared this university press novel with others I couldn’t finish from major commercial houses, whose mix-and-match hodgepodge of typical characters and situations seems like recombinant DNA.

That said, Anger’s editors could have helped The Shinnery in small but important ways—get rid of the pointless, one-page prologue; do justice to the story with a more enticing, smoother blurb; catch errors like a character’s name changing in the middle of a scene; and maybe deleting the explanatory passages.

Still, this novel tells a bold, original story—not for the faint of heart—and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.