A late bloomer: Amherst poet Faith Shearin explores new ground with an award-winning YA novel

  • Amherst author Faith Shearin, an award-winning poet (and a Hampshire College graduate), won a U.S.-British literary contest with her first-ever Young Adult novel, “Lost River 1918,” which will be published at the end of August. PHOTO BY KERRY STAVELY/COURTESY FAITH SHEARIN

  • “Lost River 1918,” Faith Shearin’s award-winning YA novel, explores the mysterious connections between the living and the dead in a rural West Virginia community in the midst of the Spanish Influenza.  CONTRIBUTED

  • Amherst author Faith Shearin, an award-winning poet (and a Hampshire College graduate), won a U.S.-British literary contest with her first-ever Young Adult novel, “Lost River 1918,” which will be published at the end of August. PHOTO BY GORDON KREPLIN/COURTESY FAITH SHEARIN

  • Shearin’s most recent poetry collection, Lost Language, was written in the aftermath of the sudden death of her husband in 2018. CONTRIBUTED

  • And emergency hospital set up in Kansas in 1918 during the Spanish Influenza epidemic. The epidemic is a key part of the plot line in “Lost River 1918.” Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine/public domain

Staff Writer
Published: 8/19/2022 10:13:33 AM

Though she’s been writing poetry for years, Faith Shearin notes that she made her first serious foray into writing as a short-story writer — or as a would-be short story writer.

She was in an MFA program in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and her stories had “some carefully constructed dialogue — I was really attracted to language — but the plots were a problem,” said Shearin. “Not a lot tended to happen in my stories.”

So Shearin, a Hampshire College graduate who lives in Amherst, switched over to Sarah Lawrence’s poetry program — and she’s since published seven collections of poetry that have garnered numerous awards, including from Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Arts, and helped her secure visiting writing positions in a number of places.

But in more recent years she’s made another stab at fiction — with considerable success.

Shearin’s debut Young Adult novel, “Lost River 1918,” has won a literary contest known as the Leapfrog Global Fiction Prize, run by a publisher with two presses, Leap Frog Press in the U.S. and TSB/Can of Worms Enterprises in Great Britain. Her book will be released at the end of August, while TSB/Leapfrog Press will publish her second YA title, “Horse Latitudes,” in 2023 after that book finished second in the Leapfrog contest.

The competition, begun in 2009, originally was reserved for adult fiction titles but was expanded last year to include a YA category.

“It’s nice to think you can do something differently, that you’re not completely fixed in place as a writer,” Shearin said during a recent phone call, adding that she’s thrilled but also “shocked” that her novels are being published. “I like the challenge of constructing a longer narrative … I guess I never completely gave up on the idea of writing fiction.”

“I think I got lucky,” she added with a laugh, referring to her first- and second-place wins in the literary contest.

“Lost River 1918” is at times a dark tale, but it’s also an immersive story that reads a bit like a fable, one that explores the connections between the living and the dead. Set on the edge of a magical forest near a small town, Darkesville, in the hills of West Virginia, the story is narrated by 13-year-old Jane Van Beest, whose father, Fergus, is a mortician, while her mother, Aerial, is a midwife. The family, including Jane’s younger sister, Frannie, is thus well-acquainted with the cycles of life and death.

This quiet existence is upended, though, when Aerial delivers a stillborn infant, Lucy, who suddenly comes back to life the day after Fergus constructs a small coffin for her burial. At the same time, an unknown girl about Jane’s age, called Bog Girl after her body is recovered from a swampy section of the woods, also becomes reanimated on the morning of her intended burial.

Soon Darkesville is full of curiosity seekers, reporters and others drawn to this extraordinary story, and the town’s minister — “[A] vain man, I think, excited by his sudden fame,” says Jane — proclaims that “Jesus showed us this was possible.”

“In Darkesville, people became convinced that our father could raise the dead,” Jane recounts, “that if he could preserve bodies with peat and other secret ingredients … the dead of our village would return to us; they would open their eyes, and step out of death as Red Riding Hood and her grandmother had stepped out of the belly of the wolf when a huntsman cut them free.”

But things aren’t that clear-cut, nor are Bog Girl and Lucy quite like the people around them (Lucy quickly grows a full head of hair and is up and walking, a toddler rather than a newborn). They have strange habits, like subsisting on little more than milk and potatoes, and they form an unspoken bond with each other as well as strange connections to animals and the nearby forest, where they often disappear for hours.

And death is bearing down on Darkesville: It’s 1918, and as winter arrives, the Spanish Influenza begins cutting a swath through the population.

Responding to loss

Shearin’s two YA novels did not come out of left field. She explains that she developed an interest in the genre after spending years reading such stories with her daughter, Mavis, as she was growing up.

“I really started to like them,” she said. “They were full of escapism and imagination, or a combination of realism and fantasy, and some of the stories were so good … They were a nice alternative to some of the darkness in adult fiction.”

There’s another factor, though, behind “Lost River 1918”: Shearin’s late husband, Tom Murdock, died suddenly in 2018 of a heart attack, after 24 years of marriage, when Shearin was just 48. Suddenly bereft and staggered by her loss, she says she “just kind of dropped off from everything for awhile.”

Shearin grew up on the North Carolina coast, but she did her last year of high school in Putney, Vermont and then entered Hampshire College in 1987. She and Tom lived in different places over the years, including on Cape Cod and in Michigan and West Virginia, and Shearin taught writing and English in a number of settings.

The couple moved to Northampton in August 2018, as Mavis was about to enter Mount Holyoke College. Just three months later, Tom passed away.

After the initial shock, Shearin tried to come to come to terms with her husband’s death in part by writing a new volume of poems, “Lost Language,” and then turning her hand to “Lost River 1918.”

“I had this impulse after he died to explore this landscape where the dead and the living make some kind of connection,” she said. “And writing [the novel] did make me feel better.”

She’s pulled together a number of threads in her story, from past study of the Spanish Influenza — two of her great-grandparents shared stories with her years ago about surviving the pandemic — to her interest in children’s books that examine unusual lives or relationships between the dead and the living. She points in particular to “Tuck Everlasting,” about an immortal family, and “The Graveyard Boy,” about a child raised by ghosts.

Shearin and her family also lived for six years in an “isolated, tiny cabin” on a West Virginia mountainside — “It was mildly dangerous but really beautiful,” she said with a laugh — an experience she’s drawn on for much of the lyrical descriptions of landscape in her novel, as well as her evocation of the quiet rhythms of early 20th-century rural life.

Some of the best passages in “Lost River 1918” evoke both the majesty and mysteriousness of nature. Jane, walking during a snowfall to the edge of the woods outside her home, where white “Clotho” trees grow, observes that “The forest, lost in its blizzard, might have been a room in heaven: marble statues, vaulted ceiling, a floor made of ivory.”

The story deepens as Spanish Influenza takes a toll on the community, further delineating the uncertain relationship between the living and the dead, including the dead who have returned to live, at least for awhile, among the living.

“Bog Girl would never be a woman, yet she would wander among mortals for a generation,” says Jane. “I wondered how it felt to be timeless: locked forever in girlhood, without a clear birth or old age.”

Shearin had actually begun writing parts of her second YA title, “Horse Latitudes,” some years back, and added some additional chapters to submit the whole manuscript to the Leapfrog contest. It’s essentially a linked collection of stories about a family living in North Carolina in the 1970s, she said.

She’s also working on a new YA novel. She’s not giving up on poetry, but she says that after all these years, “I finally found my way to plot … I guess I’m something of a late bloomer.”

Faith Shearin’s website is faithshearinlostriver.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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