Book review: W.Va. heroine endures hardships
"Child of the Mountains." By Marilyn Sue Shank. Delacorte-Random House. 259 pages. $19.99.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Marilyn Sue Shank's debut novel, "Child of the Mountains," features a resilient 11-year-old protagonist who faces a landslide of problems.
Lydia is happy in her home in Putnam County, W.Va., where she lives with her widowed mother, her whip-smart younger brother BJ and her beloved grandmother. Theirs is a close-knit family, though money is hard to come by and life is anything but easy in their 1953 rural home.
Lydia's brother suffers from cystic fibrosis. With the family's limited resources, obtaining adequate medical care appears nearly impossible until a well-meaning doctor refers BJ to a research hospital in Ohio where he can be treated "for free."
At the hospital Lydia encounters negative attitudes toward Appalachian speech and culture for the first time. When BJ outsmarts the nurse who treats him so shabbily, Lydia and her mother find a moment of levity. Ultimately, however, the treatments fail.
When her grandmother and brother die and her mother is unjustly imprisoned, Lydia finds herself uprooted and forced to move in with her uncle and aunt and attend a new school in a coal camp some miles away. Bullied by unfriendly classmates who criticize her for what they believe her mother has done, Lydia finds solace in the stories of "Anne of Green Gables."
When a teacher takes an interest in her mother's case, Lydia is at first reluctant to talk about what happened for fear her uncle and aunt will think she is bringing shame on the family. But, as a subplot unfurls, revealing a family secret that involves her uncle, Lydia finds the courage to speak up. Tension builds to a climactic courtroom scene in which Lydia plays a crucial role.
Just as Jennifer Holm explored prejudices against Italian-Americans in postwar New Jersey in her novel "Penny From Heaven," so Shank explores prejudices against people from Appalachia in her first book.
"Child of the Mountains" is a good story told in authentic Appalachian dialect by a writer who knows her subject matter and who fiercely loves the place that formed her. Shank herself is a native of Charleston and reveals in an author's note her family's deep ties to West Virginia, going back to the 1700s.
Readers familiar with Kanawha and Putnam counties will recognize places mentioned in the book. Young readers will also appreciate the map at the beginning. The target audience is readers ages 9 through 12.
Marilyn Sue Shank earned a doctorate in special education at the University of Kansas, where she majored in learning disabilities and behavior disorders and minored in counseling psychology and families with disabilities.
She has taught general and special education at the elementary, secondary and college levels and lives in West Virginia with her three rescue dogs. She will be appearing at a May 5 special event at Taylor Books in Charleston. Contact Taylor Books at 304-342-1461 for more information or visit www.marilynsueshank.com.
Sarah Sullivan is the author of four picture books and holds an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College. She may be contacted through her website, www.sarahsullivanbooks.com.