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  • Shelter
  • Written by Jayne Anne Phillips
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780375727399
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Shelter

A Novel

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In a West Virginia forest in 1963, a group of children at summer camp enter a foreboding Eden and experience an unexpected rite of passage. Shelter is an astonishing portrayal of an American loss of innocence as witnessed by a mysterious drifter named Parson, two young sisters, Lenny and Alma, and a feral boy called Buddy. Together they come to understand bravery and the importance of compassion.
Phillips unearths a dangerous beauty in this primeval terrain and in the hearts of her characters. Lies, secrets, erotic initiations, and the bonds of love between friends, families, and generations are transformed in a leafy wilderness undiminished by societal rules and dilemmas. Cast in Phillips’ stunning prose, with an unpredictable cast of characters and a shadowy, suspenseful narrative, Shelter is a an enduring achievement from one of the finest writers of our time.

Excerpt

LENNY:

Higher and Highest

The sky burned white to blond to powder to an almighty blue; the sun fell unobstructed. The girls wore heavy green shorts that were too long and short-sleeved white blouses embroidered in a clover silhouette above the right breast. The blouses were all too big; only the older girls with larger breasts looked strangely seductive in them. The dark shorts were forest-green gabardine, fluted with fine yellow braid on two deep pockets. In Charleston, the state headquarters of Girl Guides did not concede the heat of the Appalachian summer; they recommended knee socks with garters, neckerchiefs with a gold pin at the throat, wool berets. But Camp Shelter was newly reopened, the cabins were in shored-up disrepair, the cots themselves castoffs from a Boy Scout camp in the Panhandle. The county was low income, the mines, statewide, laid off. Only the shorts and blouses were regulation; girls on Supplement or Full Supplement wore secondhand uniforms and got away with rolling up their sleeves.

The upper sites had no cabins at all, just tents donated by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The tents were war surplus, army olive, weathered, alight on squat frames that were new and rough. Each frame seemed the unfinished skeleton of some more ambitious structure. A row of pale two-by-fours angled out from the wooden platforms that served as floors; like rows of awkward elbows, each held a lashed knot tight and the square form of the tent remained uncomfortably aloft. The raised front flaps were tied back, revealing olive interiors so completely plain that the metal cots with their bluestriped mattresses looked direly ornamental. The plank floors tilted and some were supported by posts in front or behind. Lenny and Cap were in the last row of Highest; beyond the rear wall of their tent, the world dropped off. Tattered in the descending bank, brush and flowers grew waist high. Lenny had stood there, looking up. From behind, the tents seemed temporary and strange. Like the dwellings of nomads in flight from floods, they perched on the hillsides in ascending order. Enclaves meant to be A, B, and C camps were soon dubbed High, Higher, and Highest: Girl Guides were rotated ever higher, the better to experience lashing in the wild and long hikes to flag raising. Seniors at Highest camp walked provisions up every morning after early swim in Mud River, and were never seen except at breakfast and at seven A.M. formation. Lenny and Cap stood then in a single line with the rest, just round the flag, looking hard and scratched in their dark, wrinkled Bermudas as the Juniors struggled out of the woods. The Seniors wore slouchy beige or white hats and terry-cloth wristbands: marks of combat with the insects and the heat, and the mist they were already walking through when reveille sounded far below at the quad. The dew-slick windings that were the trails from Highest were a jungle unto themselves and smelled of melons and snakes. Lenny was a Senior with the Seniors. What did they do up there all day? A million things, Lenny had lied to her sister, Alma, who was only a Junior and slept in a civilized cabin off the quad. At night the Seniors sang. Lenny knew they were made to sing. From below, their fires would appear as haphazard orange winks in the dark, and their voices must carry as vague chants that lifted and dropped: Come by here, my Lord. Lenny thought they were probably praying.

After cooking and mess duty and campfire close, they finally went to their tents, each one a canvas bunker whose sides and drooping roof held the heat of the day. Lenny and Cap were on the side of the mountain; if they tied up the front and rear flaps, air moved through the tent like a blessing. At ten and eleven they were still awake, indolent, murmuring, lying on narrow cots with the sheets still tucked. Cap wore her underwear but Lenny took off everything, relieved to be rid at last of the blouse that buttoned to the neck, the heavy shorts that covered her to her knees. She lay on her bed, legs spread, arms out, her blond hair flung over her face. Her hair, weighty, dense, released from its binding elastic, smelled of woodsmoke but felt cool; she imagined its light color made it cool in the dark of night on Highest. Even the lanterns were out. The counselors were sleeping, having made up chore lists for tomorrow; in these hours, Lenny was free. She felt her body borne up and slowly spinning, spun free by the cooling air, the blackness, the night sounds that grew louder and louder as she concentrated on each one: crickets emitting their pierced warbles, the woods owls hooting like they were trying to get breath, the grasses moving ever so slightly, crack of a twig. Though she complained, Lenny liked camp; she liked being dirty, dousing a change of uniform in the stream, throwing it over a rope line to dry, and putting it on still damp. She liked how the river slid, brown and flat, just a stretch of woods from Turtle Hole, the swimming pond whose mysterious depths were forbidden. She liked being with girls and the fact there were no boys, just Buddy, the cook's little kid, who followed them everywhere like the plague, and Frank, the good-looking bugler, perhaps a year older than they, safely observed from a distance. There were four or five county workmen, faceless in khaki clothes, but their river colony of ditches and pipes seemed unreal as home.

Walking was real. Lenny liked the endless walking that was by now automatic, the meaningless, inarguable up and down of the mountain. The routine, the common movements of the group, were oddly pleasant: nothing to be thought of, nothing to be decided, only this chore or that chore, all of them alike, really, the cleaning of objects, the storage of objects, the carrying up and down the mountain of objects. Even food seemed a series of objects, peeled and cut and cooked into mash, even the water to cook it hauled from somewhere. All day Lenny carried this or that--apples, potatoes, buckets, wood--through shimmering heat, conscious sometimes of the heat as a nearly liquid element, as though they were all kept upright, forced to move by what oppressed them. They struggled against it as swimmers struggle, cutting through, buoyed up.

The days were long. When dark descended, Lenny felt cooled and numb. She thought of the glass of beer in her father's hand: she felt as translucent and dense. He would be drinking beer now, on the dark porch at home, in the absolute quiet of Alma's and Lenny's absence, Audrey a canceled zero somewhere in the workings of the house. Lenny couldn't imagine her mother except in the context of Alma and herself; her father she saw clearly. Wes existed apart from them, always--that was Audrey's constant reproach. Home nights, Lenny often walked outside with a paper cup and Wes would pour her part of his beer; she drank it down in slow swallows and it spread through her. At night in Camp Shelter, protected by Cap and dozens of sleeping strangers, she imagined the beer pouring into her and over her, thick and golden like cold, syrupy lava, poured from her father's glass in a Technicolor dream. She wasn't here with Cap, she wasn't anywhere. In the emptiness, full, she nearly slept but didn't sleep, and floated.

PARSON:

In the Shack at Night

At night the shack was darker even than the night beyond it, and when he first lay down on his pallet he felt himself cosseted within some creature whose existence he had always suspected. He seemed to be in utter darkness, the dark that is in the inner guts of living things, and he listened for a heartbeat and heard it, a pounding on a wall, a wrenching pump pump pump that was wet and sick, and gradually the close, furry dark took on a bit of the light of the open night, the night in the forest. Out there the sky looked paler than the trees, which were so black they had no depth, and palest of all was the glassy surface of Turtle Hole, which he could see through the two windows of the front wall of the shack. A week ago he'd torn down the tar paper covering the cracked glass: Turtle Hole lay forward and to the right. From deep in the overhanging trees he glimpsed its opaque light. The water was roundly lopsided like a bowl squashed flat, the water was motionless like night ice that still might tremble if some creature swam beneath the perfect surface, the water scared him mightily and so he lay very still, he lay there and the space of the shack enlarged. Floater, underling, he clung to an udder of charcoal dark and saw the steep pitch of the shack roof above him, weathered gray of the boards pale against tar paper. Someone else had stayed here, stuffed paper between the boards, nailed up a few wood scraps in the corner where the slant was worst. Must have been a chicken coop, with a roosting shelf some tramp had long ago made into a bed. Now the partition boards were gone and the shelf built up with straw, straw he smelt chickens in, an old dust of powder and feathers, he'd sooner bed with rats than chickens, he'd killed rats many a time, shot them with a revolver when he was Preacher's boy. But chickens made him scared, the way they bobbed and pecked, jerking here and there on devilish horned feet, blinking their raw, pink eyes that were stupid and soulless as the eyes of fish. The noise they made, the bwak bwak cut and cluck, the ck ck ck that stammered and froze his blood, how he used to have to chop their heads off at Proudytown, stand there and hold the bloody hatchet while their headless bodies flopped and staggered like runt machines. They were evil, the way they couldn't die, they might have made him evil too, kitchen matron quarreling at him, go on out there and pick up them birds, big boy like you scared of chickens, you gonna eat it you better be ready to kill it, but he didn't eat it, never did, he didn't want that flesh inside him even when his guts rolled with hunger. Oh, it was dark inside him, he knew he was born dark and he liked to be in the daytime, in the dark he had to lie still and watch.

He told himself everything evil was long gone from here. Summers and winters the shack had been empty, falling down for years, who knew how many, maybe as far back as when he was with Preacher, sermonizing, sixteen years old, cowlick and a swarth of beard, dark kid, guinea kid, they taunted him at school, in need of a haircut and clothes, in need of a home, Preacher would say from the pulpit. So he became Preacher's foster son, even preached on Fridays, sweating, Bible in his hand, and while he'd shouted in Preacher's Calvary house, snakes had molted here in this abandoned slant of boards. Parson had found skins, some of them so old they fell to dust when he lifted them out of leaves and dirt. Whatever he found that was good he put beneath his pallet: the dry leaves, an empty honeycomb, the clean bones of small animals rotted and returned to powders, and the snakeskins. There were rags of blankets left by vagrants, men who must have slept here in winter when the camp was closed. And since he'd gotten work on the pipe crew, the directress, a fat redheaded woman white as pink-tinged chalk, had sent him twice to the dump with a truckload of junk. Now he had a metal kitchen chair with a ripped plastic seat, and a cot mattress discolored and torn, softer under him than any bed he remembered. He had magazines. He had a dish with a blue flower on it, and a bucket with no handle he filled at Turtle Hole near dusk. Kneeling to fill it, he saw his own face wavering and broken on the cool surface, sometimes he splattered the image with his hand, with his face, biting water that tasted clean and cut like glass, cold and brilliant, and when he came up sputtering he heard the girls singing in their camps, the sounds vague and high, mesmerizing, every night they sang and he could never hear the words, there were different words from different directions and their nonsensical rise and fall seemed to call and answer, calling him, answering, and he knew he'd come to the right place, he'd followed Carmody and come to a place he was meant to find. It almost didn't matter who he followed, any of them, fallen, vicious in their minds, could lead him to grace.

In prison he'd watched Carmody carefully. Carmody, long and lank, his faded, wheat-colored hair and squinty eyes, his face that was not young with its callow, unfinished look, showing always an edge of the rabbity anger that caused him to hang back, scheming while his cohorts strutted and preened. Carmody moved, not seeming to move, planned while he appeared to sleep: Parson dreamed Carmody was water, an elongated sheen not unlike Turtle Hole in color and brilliance, an oval water that moved along the edges of things like a shade or a ghost, a water that moved up walls, through bars, edged past the warrens of cells along the main corridor of the prison, water that glistened, featureless and flat, probing, searching to take on any shape, any color, anything to get out. For some of them, prison was no worse than what they'd lived through. But prison broke Carmody up, he was wild to finish his time, afraid of the wardens, afraid of the other men. He even seemed afraid of his wife and kid, or afraid to see them, the wife a big woman gone to fat and the kid a pale towhead, quick and thin, darting beside her like a shadow tethered to a string. Before their rare visits Carmody was jumpy. He said his old lady was a nut for God, she and Parson would get on, but Parson wasn't much for women, was he, and Carmody laughed. Parson could smell the fear on him, a bitter vegetable smell like rotted seeds and pulp. For a while they'd shared a cell in D block: Carmody flowed from one side to the other, pacing in the dark, ranting about the block bosses and their gofers until he knelt in the corner and beat at the wall with his fist, a rhythmic pounding punctuated by frantic whispers, I gotta be a good boy, good boy, gotta be a good boy, kill them, fuck them, until Parson dragged him by the back of his shirt to the bunks and prayed over him. Oh Christ, Carmody would mutter, struggle like a cat in a sack, shut up you crazy loon, they all know you're crazy, why the hell do you think they leave you alone? But the praying always worked and Parson was strong enough to hold Carmody still, hold him in the healing grip of the Heavenly Father and press hard against the evil, press hard and shake the Devil loose.
Jayne Anne Phillips|Author Q&A

About Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips - Shelter

Photo © Elena Seibert

Jayne Anne Phillips was born in Buckhannon, West Virginia. She is the author of four novels, Lark and Termite (2008), MotherKind (2000), Shelter (1994) and Machine Dreams (1984), and two collections of widely anthologized stories, Fast Lanes (1987) and Black Tickets (1979). She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Bunting Fellowship. She has been awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction (1980) and an Academy Award in Literature (1997) by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work has been translated into twelve languages, and has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, DoubleTake, and The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. She is currently Professor of English and Director of the MFA Program at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.

Author Q&A

Q: There is a unifying vision in your work, but each of your books seems to differ substantially from the last. Your British editor at Faber & Faber, Robert McCrum, has described SHELTER as “the best thing [she] has done, brilliantly and densely written, like a fugue. . . . It stands alongside MACHINE DREAMS in its exploration of the American psyche.” How would you describe the genesis of your new novel SHELTER? How does it differ from your other books?

A: Shelter is a book I have wanted to write for fifteen years. The opening paragraph, which forms a sort of prefacing image, is set apart from the narrative because it existed long before the novel was written. I think I wrote Shelter in order to understand that paragraph. After Machine Dreams, which stretched over a duration of time and generation, I wanted to write a narrative which took place in the space of a few days, with the characters’ recent or even extended pasts included as internalized knowledge or mystery. I knew this book would concern a group of children who are isolated from their families and living within their own society. Together they would experience a rite of passage which rephrased the past and changed them. From the first lines onward—“The sky burned white to blond to powder to an almighty blue; the sun fell unobstructed. The girls wore heavy green shorts . . .”—the four girls were present for me. I only had to find out who they were. I wanted to investigate bonding, particularly between adolescent girls, but I didn’t want the focus to be that narrow. I saw each child as carrying a family burden or secret. I wanted to think about evil, the idea of whether evil really exists or if it is just a function of damage, the fact that when people are damaged, they damage others.

Q: Parson is a frightening character, all the more because he proceeds within his own logic, according to a complex system of apprehended images and beliefs. Do you see the character of Parson as a kind of savior, a twisted angel, or a madman?

A: It’s as though the answer to madness verges on madness. Parson sees himself as opposing powerful forces, and he must be more than himself to combat those forces. We all speak in the language we know. If Parson is an angel, he is certainly a mortal, damaged angel. He is telepathic, or even psychic, but his experience is framed in fundamentalist Christianity. He views the devil as an actual being able to “possess” the damaged in spirit, and he must defend himself from this same possession. In opposing Carmody, he is waging a battle for his own soul.

Q: There’s a very disturbing scene in SHELTER between Buddy and his stepfather Carmody. Can you speak about the relationship between them? What was it like to write such a scene? Do you read that scene aloud?

A: I read it aloud once, and I will not ever do so again. It should exist in silence, on the page. It is the dark night of the soul of a child, a child in terror, and the reader is taken inside that terror. The reader is inside Buddy, moving carefully, waiting for it to be over, psyching out the logic of the beast, and listening to the air in the leaves of the trees, watching that movement, the beckoning animation of the physical world, which is his source of strength. Later in the book, after the second scene at Turtle Hole, Lenny is leading the others through the cave and she begins to understand what prayer is. Buddy already knows; he doesn’t have to phrase it in language.

Q: But you’re speaking of something beyond the Christian conception of prayer.

A: Well, love is prayer, and rituals of strength, protection, or safety are prayers against vulnerability. Temporary protections, constantly renewed. Buddy has grown up with the language of ritualized prayer but it is the lines from the singsong Mam has used to put him to sleep or comfort him that he remembers as talismans . . . Up the airy mountain/down the rushy glen/we dare not go a-hunting, etc. He hears the lines in her voice, a voice deeply loved and trusted, and he connects them to his sense of the physical world, the world of the woods and the road that is his known universe, of which he is wholly a part.

Q: Some might ask why Buddy doesn’t tell Mam, or someone, about Carmody’s victimization of him.

A: I notice you don’t ask, though, which leads me to believe you know what I’m going to say. Child abuse, fear of it, knowledge of it, is a malaise of our time. We all know children often don’t tell, are not able to tell. Buddy is extremely, intuitively, astute. He sees that Mam is being abused by Carmody, invaded by Carmody. She is unable to help herself; how, then, could she help Buddy? He knows more about Carmody’s power over her than she does. He may even believe that his silence helps ensure the only safety he has left; her actual presence.

Q: The inability of the adult world to protect its children, or even to resist victimizing them, is clearly a theme in SHELTER. The adult characters of Parson and Carmody have been deeply hurt as children. Buddy and the four girls have each been burdened with adult problems or secrets. This seems very relevant to what children experience in the 90’s, whether through family politics and divorce, assaultive mass media, or what has been seen as an increase in actual abuse. Can you comment?

A: Children who are overseen rather than parented, who are drawn into the unresolved dilemmas of adult relationships, or who are confused by permeable boundaries in families, are not a new function of the 90s. Popular images of the 40s and 50s would have us believe that families once resembled Donna Reed or Father Knows Best. I looked at those images, but I never believed them. My own parents’ stories alone give the lie to that myth. It is true that women stayed home then; they were more often there to pick up the pieces. But that was mere damage control, not a real solution or understanding of the forces that shape families. What has changed now, drastically, is that extended family and community no longer exist for most children. This is true across class lines. For children growing up on the front lines of urban war zones, there is not even a modicum of physical safety. And none of us are safe from the derangement of tabloid driven, throw-away, violence-drenched popular culture. Surveys show that over 72% of American homes now own more than one television. According to my nine-year-old, many of his friends have their own TVs, in their rooms. Gone are the days when the family imbibed together. Children now watch television alone, prey to whatever spills over them.

Q: In the summer of 1963, Buddy and Mam don’t seem to have a television set. Is this likely, or did you want to screen the world of the book from popular culture?

A: Yes, obviously, the setting of the camp is a world apart, and Buddy and Mam live in that world, full-time, while the children at the camp only borrow it. Buddy goes to school and Mam works at menial jobs, and those activities have to go on in the world of Gaither, the nearest town. The seasons and the physical world are the cradle of their experience; in the early 60s they are still living as people lived up those dirt roads in the 30s, with the difference that Mam and Buddy are even more isolated , since the few families near them have left their dilapidated houses and moved away. In ’63, it’s quite possible Mam and Buddy didn’t have a TV; they wouldn’t have had any reception anyway, up that rural road, before the advent of cable, etc. They have the radio and a whole preserve of wilderness. Buddy has forged a self from his familiarity with that world. He’s able to defend against the outside world’s reductive image of him, and he finds in himself the strength and endurance to oppose terror closer to home.

Q: What about Lenny? Is Buddy pulled toward her out of some intuition that she has experienced a similar darkness?

A: For Buddy, it’s almost as though Lenny is news from the outside world, a special, extraordinary news, apprehended on his home ground. He picks her out and adores her. To various degrees, she is looked up to or desired by all the children. For Alma, she is the somewhat removed, more controlled, more perfect older sister, somehow defended against their mother’s needs. To Delia, she is a mostly unknown ideal. And Cap, lone child of an openly combative parental bitterness, clings to Lenny as a kind of loved prey. But nothing has quite reached Lenny for many years, and in this summer she begins to understand why. Her “darkness,” though, is quite different from Buddy’s. It’s not explicit now or clearly known, and it was experienced with a loved one, someone who should have protected her, not an interloper who was clearly destructive. Lenny begins to remember only atmospheric, dissociated images. I have my own ideas about what happened to Lenny, but I can’t know because Lenny doesn’t know, and the reader can’t know either.

Q: Because SHELTER deals with children isolated from civilization, some readers have likened it to LORD OF THE FLIES, with the crucial difference that it deals with girls rather than boys. It is the girls who are “marooned,” at Camp Shelter, while Buddy seems almost a feral child, coming and going as he pleases in the woods, far more comfortable in the natural world, content that his only human relationship (beyond his observation of the girls at the camp) seemingly is with Mam. What do you think of the comparison of your book to Golding’s work?

A: Golding’s children are menaced by the mystery of the unknown in the jungle of the island, but even more so by the “evils” within them. Supposedly innocent children, who might have created a utopia, break down into struggling tribes until they are rescued by a world no more “civilized” than they are. Shelter is a more optimistic vision, in that the children are seen as whole and “good” in their “savage” or original state; it is the adult world that threatens and damages them, on a number of levels. The “evil” is without, not within. They overcome, for a time, their separation from one another, and they bond together to meet what threatens them, without premeditation, almost by accident. They learn how little the adult world knows. Literally, they no longer look to the adult world to carry their burdens, or to absolve them. They learn things not supported or understood in the adult world. In fact, there is an inversion in which they protect the adults, at great cost to themselves. Alma’s whole being has been given to psychologically protecting her mother; her mother extends this to include the secret about Nickel Campbell, so that Alma must protect Delia as well. At the camp, when Lenny leads her through the cave, Alma actually experiences “shelter” for the first time.

Q: Despite SHELTER’s rich language, a prose that is almost Faulknerian in its intensity, particularly in Parson’s sections, there is real suspense. That suspense arises from the reader’s sense that the children are imminently threatened. Parson, especially at first, seems to be part of that threat. He seems to struggle with the violence in himself, to ‘wrestle with the demon,” as it were. Is he part of the adult world, a world already tainted, struggling with its base impulses?

A: Well, Parson struggles to stay “good”; he has a sense of evil trying to get to him, make him afraid, weaken his resolve. And there is this struggle, whether we see it as good or evil or as morality, as right or wrong, or as self-preservation versus the common good. Golding’s point in Lord of the Flies was that civilization is a struggle humankind maintains; it could be said that peace and war are sacred and profane cultural stances. But here is where the understanding of “good” and “evil” are shown to be most limiting. Peace is in fact a live process, a changing, adaptive, negotiated process, between nations as between individuals. Boundaries must exist because the self is so threatened by difference, and this fear is quite primal. Boundaries, between individuals or cultures, exist to provide a neutral space for communication, which in turn can relax fear, when it is clear that boundaries are respected. Then, exchange begins: identity is enriched and enlarged. The ideal is that differences be celebrated, recognized as manifestations of the “selves” within culture. Nations are simply organized tribes, and there are many tribes within a nation. Tribes embody history and story, blood, racial and religious similarity; they comprise a method of understanding, a way of receiving and interpreting information. When people are cut adrift from a common understanding of meaning, when they lose their “tribal” identity, they simply float loose. In modern life, cultural identities are created along economic, political lines: the creation of an underclass isolated from possibility of any kind, with family units desecrated by drugs, violence, and rage.

I see the characters of Shelter as existing in a less extreme time, yet prefiguring what we see today. The social fabric of that time did not shield Carmody or Parson, just as children in extreme situations are not often shielded today. Now the isolation (or protection) of physical geography is almost completely broken down, and connection to place or history are even farther compromised.

Q: The town of Bellington, West Virginia, setting of MACHINE DREAMS, is mentioned as being not so far from Gaither, the fictional town nearest Camp Shelter. How does place operate in your fiction? Why have you returned to a West Virginia setting, though a very different one, in this novel? And why do you so often write about children? Several stories in BLACK TICKETS, like “Lechery,” “1934,” and “Show,” have children as protagonists.

A: It’s clear to me by now that, though I fled early, I am one of those people who never left home. And I see children as where we all start from, cleanly, before we collide with what we encounter. In stories, my children can come from anywhere. When I deal with children as characters in a novel, I see them in the context of a world, and my own childhood unfolded entirely in one place. I’m deeply grateful for that. But I think of the West Virginia I grew up in as being gone, lost in the same way my primal family is lost, has passed away. It’s become mythic territory, powerful beyond any boundaries. The West Virginia of this book could be any isolated, mountainous Southern region. The setting for Shelter is the physical world in that part of America, deciduous forest, the hills and mountains of the national forests of Appalachia. I grew up in a ranch-style house situated along a rural road, a concrete two-lane, and there were fields and hills around the house, and cattle, and a creek way down into the fields. We used to say we lived “out in the country,” as opposed to “in town.” And I did go to several sleep away camps as a kid, camps located in national forests, where the sense of the physical world was wilder and older. The camp in Shelter was an excuse to isolate children in that power and primacy, though the camp took on its own character.

Q: It’s interesting to think that, in the fictional universe of the two novels, the lives of the characters are unfolding concurrently. MACHINE DREAMS has two sections that take place in 1963; Danner and Billy, siblings who are two of the main characters in MACHINE DREAMS, are children in those sections. Most of SHELTER takes place within a few days in late July of 1963, and the last section in early November of the same year. Why does this particular time interest you? Why is SHELTER set in 1963?

A: Perhaps because that year represents the end of a period of time in which those houses miles up dirt roads would have existed in the same way I imagined the house that is Buddy’s and Mam’s; a box of a house, insulbricked or unpainted, with a porch on supports and a storage space underneath. A big room and a kitchen, linoleum flooring stapled down in one piece, wood stove in the middle. Wired for electricity, maybe plumbed, not so long ago. A radio but no TV. And because 1963 is so indelibly pressed into our national psyche. I turned twelve that summer. The Cuban missile crisis had happened the year before, in ’62, and nuclear war had been processed into children’s games on school playgrounds. Jack Kennedy had faced down the Russians; he was a prince who had overcome even virulent suspicion of Catholicism to win the presidential primary in West Virginia. Paper calendars hanging on the walls of those houses up the dirt roads had his picture on them. In late November, of course, his murder began the string of assassinations that marked the end of a national innocence. When I got to the end of writing the novel, I wanted it to finish before that. I wanted Shelter to exist almost as a precursor to that darkness.

Praise

Praise

“Astonishing. . . . Phillips has gone into the garden and headed straight for the serpent’s throat.” –The Boston Globe

“Mesmerizing. . . . The physical world is so thoroughly and beautifully evoked that within pages we’re completely drawn in.” –The Washington Post

“Written in prose that is often breathtakingly beautiful, Shelter is a rich, vivid novel of moral and psychological complexity destined to stand alongside works by Faulkner and other masters of Southern literature.” –Vanity Fair

“This defiant, frighteningly beautiful novel is as disturbing as its setting. Built to last, Shelter feels like Phillips’ bid for immortality.” –Harper’s Bazaar

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