"Shrapnel." By Marie Manilla. River City Publishing. 335 pages. $26.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 2010, Marie Manilla, a Huntington native who teaches creative writing at Marshall University, published an outstanding collection of short stories, "Still Life With Plums." Now she has published an equally outstanding first novel.
Judging from its title, a reader picking up a copy of "Shrapnel" might think it's a war novel. It's not. It offers no heated exchange of gunfire, no battlefield heroics. Instead, Manilla's novel explores the legacy of war as seen in three generations of men from the Butler family -- Bing Butler, his late son Roger and his grandson Brian.
Webster defines shrapnel as "fragments thrown out by an exploding bomb or shell." In the heat of battle, those flying fragments of hot metal can easily kill or maim. Manilla's unspoken premise in "Shrapnel" is that cruel and thoughtless words and attitudes can wound just as deeply as any bomb or shell.
In the novel's opening pages, the reader is introduced to 77-year-old Bing Butler, a widower who has reluctantly decided he can no longer safely live on his own, that the time has come when he must sell his home and move in with his daughter.
A World War II veteran and vocal patriot, Bing is a die-hard right-wing type who wants nothing to do with blacks, Latinos or gays. He's not much of a joiner, but he'd be right at home in the front row at a tea party rally.
In contrast, his daughter Susie is a feminist with deeply held antiwar views. Their sharp differences sparked lots of angry shouting when she was a teenager still living at home. And while Bing appreciates his daughter's invitation to come live with her and her family, he's by no means looking forward to it.
What's worse, accepting her invitation means packing up and moving from his beloved Texas to godforsaken West Virginia, of all places. Bing doesn't know much about West Virginia, but what he does know he doesn't like. How the heck can Susie be happy in a place where people talk funny, live in shanties and don't wear shoes?
Arriving in Huntington, where Susie and her husband, Glen, teach at Marshall, he finds they have a handsome home in a nice neighborhood. "There's the phone," says Glen, "so you can call your buddies back home and tell them we have indoor plumbing."