Shawna Kay Rodenberg’s “Kin: A Memoir” defies easy definition. Partly a memoir about growing up in an end-times religious community, partly the story of the author’s childhood in a dilapidated mining town, “Kin” is also a book about the complex and often fraught relationships between parents and children. Most important, “Kin” explores the richness and dignity of Appalachian life in the 1980s, and of people who are too often stereotyped in the media.

Cover courtesy of Bloomsbury

When Rodenberg was only a few years old, her father, newly returned from the Vietnam War, moved the family from Kentucky to Minnesota to follow the teachings of a charismatic Christian group known as The Body. On an isolated farm, Shawna’s days were consumed with Bible study, communal dinners, praise services complete with speaking in tongues, and endlessly dull sermons. Her family of four lived in a small space with a five-gallon bucket for a toilet. Although she was not permitted to have toys, her prize possession was a complete set of “Little House on the Prairie” books. Like Laura Ingalls, young Shawna also “lived in the wilderness and, though she loved her father best, found being good impossible.” Shawna’s constant forays into trouble, whether for marking up her Bible with a highlighter or for picky eating, frequently led to beatings from her father, who apologized afterward and told her that “he only whipped me because he loved me, it was all for my own good.”

Without overlaying the judgment of adulthood onto her experiences, Rodenberg writes from the perspective of a child who accepts the world around her as normal. This makes her descriptions of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a “handsome drifter” who became her tutor even more poignant. Shawna imagined herself as an equal participant in the relationship, which ended when a church elder noticed that something was going on and dismissed the tutor from the community. Although Shawna quietly moved on from this episode, the fallout remained with her throughout her childhood and adolescence, as she struggled to figure out how to relate to male figures around her.

When the church’s founder was killed in a plane crash, Shawna’s parents decided to move away from the farm, eventually returning to their hometown, Seco, Kentucky, which had been a coal mining community until the 1950s. Seco was a ruin, “a few row houses, the hammered metal bathhouse where miners could rinse the first layer of coal dust from their bodies before walking home, the white clapboard post office and Methodist church, the only official buildings in a town that once had its own school and hospital.” But to Shawna it seemed like “the prettiest graveyard,” and she was delighted to suddenly discover her large family, who “all made me feel like I belonged and always had, like they’d been waiting for me to come back.”

Shawna’s father and grandfather constantly fought, but she loved getting to know her extended family, particularly her grandmother, whom she remembers as being so strong she once pushed a stalled car up a hill to get to work on time. Her grandmother entertained Shawna and her sister with “her collected treasures like a museum curator rotating exhibitions,” including “a hope chest full of wedding quilts,” a “ruby ring Grandpa bought for her with his mining wages in the first year of their marriage” and “all Dad’s letters from Vietnam.”

Intergenerational trauma marks nearly everyone in this book, and Rodenberg shifts from writing about her own experiences to re-creating her family’s past. Her mother grew up in a family with a long line of abusive, alcoholic men, including a brother who became so violent that he had to be caged when intoxicated so he wouldn’t kill anyone. Rodenberg also shares her father’s letters to his parents from Vietnam, which say little about the war but express how much he longed to come home.

“Kin” follows Rodenberg through early adulthood and a failed stint at Berea College, where she struggled to fit in, and into her first marriage, to a man she hardly knew. Through it all, she writes about her difficult childhood with a sense of grace and generosity that keeps this book from being too painful to read. Her father emerges as an ambivalent figure who alternated between affection and abuse. He drifted into periods of extreme religiosity, during which his scrutiny of Shawna’s behavior, particularly as a teenager, intensified. Despite his frequent rages, he was obsessed with achieving a better life for his family, and he eventually managed to settle into a stable job with the local fire department. “Every time someone threw him a rope, he clung to it and pulled us a little further out of the quicksand he was born into,” Rodenberg writes. But where her father was unpredictable, her mother was a constant refuge, “a quiet ravine, a hidden planetary shadow, the cool, dark corner of a barn. She was the only place I could hide.”

How many of our own ancestors passed through these forgotten landscapes in the history of movement and migration, often bloody and exploitative, that made America what it is today? As a child poring over Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” in her local public library, Rodenberg recalls, she wished she could “reach through the book to touch the poet’s pen and hand and tell her that a dumb girl, a nobody tucked away in mountains more than a hundred years later and light years away from New York City, was still reading her beautiful poem.” Fortunately as readers, we bear witness to the fact that she has put these stories to paper. The echoes of an important chapter from America’s past call out from these pages, and Rodenberg’s stories of lives that are generally overlooked make for essential reading.

Rachel Newcomb is a professor of anthropology at Rollins College.


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