Shape of the Sky, Shelagh Connor Shapiro
Wind Ridge Books of Vermont, 2014
As an unapologetic reader of everything, I find myself categorizing new things I read with other things I have read, as if placing books and stories and poems in folders in my mind will help me put the growing lifetime pile into desperate, impossible taxonomic order. At the same time, I don’t believe it is fair to say that one book is like another, though I continue to do it. Shape of the Sky, by Shelagh Connor Shapiro, is not easy to classify. As a novel with multiple points of view, I prefer to approach it as a collection of short stories that work together toward a common narrative purpose, rather than a traditionally structured novel. Like Trailer Park, by Russell Banks, though I don’t mean to compare, each chapter in the book features a new character, allowing for multiple points of view to considerably expand the perspective of the story.
The novel tells the story of Resolute, Vermont, a small rural community that, in an attempt to increase their yearly revenue, agrees to host a large, three-day summer rock concert. There is no single protagonist, and no one plot line. Each chapter features a new character—from long-time residents, to newcomers, to groupies, and fans, and finally, a rock star in the band. We learn slowly, in the way that real life unfolds, how the events that surround the impending concert will affect each character’s life, and we soon begin to see an unexpected, interconnected tale of both residents and newcomers.
Though the perspective is expanded, Shapiro uses a limited POV, allowing the reader to enter the minds of significant characters one chapter a time. We meet newcomer, State Trooper Chris Kozlowski, and Georgia and Bill Farnham, two locals, as well as groupie Jeannie, and fan Stella Blue and her mother, Cricket. Two of the strongest characters are a young man, Carter—a high school dropout with an exceptional musical talent—and his mother, Becca, a paraplegic who is living with a secret. The relationship is tender, mature, and bittersweet, as Becca wrestles with telling Carter the truth about the accident that caused her paraplegia. We get the sense that, though their lives aren’t perfect, they are honestly portrayed, and Shapiro does a nice job of building the tension as we anticipate the ways things will change for all of the characters in the story.
This is also a story about place, and, although here I go again, I might argue that Shape of the Sky is as much about Vermont as it is about its characters, just as The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving is as much about a hotel as it is about the family who lives in it, and Circle of Friends, by Maeve Binchy is as much about Dublin as it is about four friends. In all three of these books, place plays the role of a character that I want to get to know. Shape of the Sky is filled with vivid descriptions of town meetings in the church hall, “snow-dusted fields” that can be seen “leading into the foothills, where the beginnings of trailheads are just visible,” and pastures “now dotted with tents and teenagers.”
Sprinkled liberally throughout is the tease of regional deliciousities that make me want to move to Vermont immediately, such as, “brown, molasses-infused bread, as well as beef stew; soldier beans cooked with bacon; barley and mushroom casserole, apple cabbage salad; and cider doughnuts.”
The novel, more of a patchwork quilt than a tapestry, is sometimes poignant and sad in the way that life is sad, not in the way that fiction is sad, because if you are one of those who labor under the misapprehension that fiction mimics life, you will miss the subtleties of the way this story is structured. Fiction is created through artifice and is cleverly organized to make it seem like it real life when it is not. We expect certain plot points at certain times, we expect to have our characters play certain roles, and in accepting these plot points, and buying into these characters, we wait for the crescendo of the tympani, and crash of cymbals to indicate the climax of the story that changes everything for everyone. We suspend disbelief to allow this artifice to feel real. To me, Shape of the Sky unfolds the way life unfolds, without set plot points, without fanfare, crookedly, with seemingly minor details that prove to be life-changing to some people, and remain unacknowledged by others.
Shape of the Sky, unlike what we’d expect, is not about the clash of cultures and belief systems a wealthy rock band and its diehard fans have with a pristine rural community. It is a vehicle for careful character study during the time when a new event acts as a fulcrum of change for many of the characters, in a place that acts as a witness to it all. It is a story that makes you feel like you hopped a bus in Cleveland, or Kansas City, or Jacksonville, and got off in Resolute, and you are now walking through the town, looking in shop windows, eavesdropping on residents in cafes, hoping to find yourself an apartment and a job so you can stay awhile. It is a novel that struggles to be labeled, though, ultimately, because of my desire to classify, I found myself setting it gently onto the short pile of stories I keep in a rare category: ones I like to read because they remind me of places I’d like to be.
Dawn S. Davies is the fiction editor of Gulf Stream Magazine at Florida International University, and the graduate coordinator for the Writers on the Bay Reading Series. She was the 2013 recipient of the Kentucky Women Writers Gabehart Prize for nonfiction and has been awarded residencies with the Vermont Studio Center and Can Serrat. Her work has appeared in Real South Magazine, River Styx, Brain, Child, Hippocampus, Cease, Cows, Saw Palm, Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is inches away from earning her MFA.