Shrapnel is a coming-of-age story in the nick of time for 77-year-old Bing Butler. Forced by age and circumstance to leave his beloved Texas and move in with his daughter in West Virginia, Bing's right-wing, old-school ways often put him at odds with his left-leaning daughter. Also challenged are his views of Appalachia, a place known only through 1960s War-on-Poverty commercials and lame punchlines. His wild journey reveals a fuller picture of the people of West Virginia, but it also unearths painful wounds and family secrets that he and his daughter never fully addressed. Bing must build a new life for himself in a place, and with a family, he doesn't understand, but he finds allies in unexpected places who help him become a better man.
Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and other journals. Her novels include The Patron Saint of Ugly (2014), and Shrapnel (2012), which won the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Still Life with Plums: Short Stories (2010), was a finalist for both the Weatherford Award and ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year.
I adore a classic theme with a twist, my favourite motif is self-discovery. As I marvel at the courage and strength possessed by a character forging his own path, I feel proud and genuinely happy for the accomplishment. I tend to close these books feeling satisfied. Usually, the person that I’m admiring is a teen, or a young adult. Things change dramatically when the person embarking on this journey is a seventy-seven year old, WWII veteran.
Recently widowed and forced to leave his home in Texas to live with his daughter and her family in West Virginia, Bing has absolutely no idea that he is about to question beliefs held and enforced for a lifetime. He is not a fool. He knows he will be terribly home-sick. A chilly reception is the best that he can hope for. Well, that and indoor plumbing.
At a blush, Bing is just a grumpy old man, set in his ways. But, there are certain things about “old folks” that tend to be forgotten. First, they are tougher than nails. These folks were forced to grow up quickly and deal with real problems. There was no time to pontificate; work had to be done to keep food on the table during the bleakest of times. Ideas and thoughts weren’t questioned or challenged; people simply put their heads down to work for their families and homes, as well as to fight for their countries. Times may have been simpler, but not easier.
This is how Bing was raised. He had been taught to see things as black or white, wrong or right. That philosophy served him just fine for the past seventy-odd years, it would surely see him through. So, when he learns ‘the secret’ about his new friend Ellen, they can no longer be acquainted. It isn’t his doing, not his decision—it is simply The Way Things Are. Never mind that he misses her terribly, or that he desperately needs a friend.
Searching his meager belongings for a way to strengthen the tentative bond forming with his granddaughter; Bing uncovers a newspaper clipping that threatens to shatter all he has ever known. Questions asked during typically formative years become his internal struggles. Suddenly, he has to make choices. Rather than being told what is right or wrong, Bing will have to decide for himself; apparently, alone.
Ms. Manilla’s portrayal of the traditional, grumpy old curmudgeon is astonishingly real. With a seemingly simple plot, she reveals to the reader that sometimes, people are the way they are for good reason. Without feeling chastised, I felt humbled as I accompanied Bing on his transformative journey. As I read the final pages of this book, I wept. I shed tears of sorrow for missed opportunities, mixed with tears of happiness for new beginnings. If you’ve ever had a Bing in your life, well, this book’s for you.
Shrapnel by Marie Manilla 5 MOUNTAIN STATE STARS Published 2012 by River City Publishing, Montgomery, Alabama
Promotional blurb by Valerie Nieman, author of Blood Clay - 'From the opening pages, where we find Bing Butler selling off the remnant of his life at a yard sale, Shrapnel takes us on a journey through the reshaping of the American family and American community. Texan, veteran, working man, husband - the life that Bing Butler had imagined for himself has exploded, and he will have to assemble a new one from the shards, far across the country in West Virginia, a place known only through jokes and stereotypes. This crotchety Candide will be led astray and will experience terrible, ordinary betrayals on his way to a future he'd not imagined. This is a sensitively wrought first novel with characters you'll long remember.'
"Your judgment, perceptions, preconceptions, and expectations all cloud the moment. If you want to become more aware, empty your mind, so that you can see the moment more clearly.” ― Akiroq Brost
My thoughts - I honestly cringed during the early pages of this debut novel. A life-long Texan with life-long bigotry - racial - LGBTQ - hillbillies - you name it - mixed in with rigid gender stereotyping and you get the picture of Bing. Everything outside his narrow comfort field annoys him to no end. After he arrives in Huntington, WV he's thrust into a living arrangement where he is the eldest in a three-generation household, with each generation dealing with their own issues. Bing has to learn to navigate within this family and neighborhood while disengaging from what he left behind. Even Bing's legend comes under scrutiny - mostly by Bing himself.
This is a transformational story with gentle reveals along the way that test Bing's true nature and pit his preconceptions against his new experiences. In addition to that, Bing is faced with the fact that there are some things he is powerless to change and how is this septuagenarian going to handle that? Many possibilities exist and like most things in life, there are no easy answers. The author adeptly peels back the layers of pig-headedness to gradually reveal aspects of Bing's nuanced humanity that even surprise Bing himself. Likewise, the author doesn't provide solutions to all the issues raised in the course of this story. That's a smart move in that it allows the reader to formulate some paths that the story may take, or, more likely as in real life, the unanswered questions and untaken paths remain just that.
This is a well-crafted story. I want to read more by this author.
Hubby: "What's that book about, is it a war story?" Me: "I have no idea what it's about... and I'm half way through."
The story was a series of hills and valleys for me: high points being the opening scenes of Bing leaving his home, a wild ride with strangers, and the ending. The low points being the family's attitude toward Bing, his dream-like hallucinations, and the amount of material that just didn't seem to add anything and move the book forward. While that entertaining wild ride with strangers chapter reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books*, it didn't seem to fit in this one.
The book's description would have you believe that Bing, the main character, is a grumpy, dimwitted codger moving in with his daughter so she can care for him in his golden years. Personally, I found Bing to be the most likeable family member other than Frida the dog. Bing's daughter, her husband and their 2 children are all uncaring and rude. They warm up and have attitude changes along the way as you would expect, but I didn't see the narrative having any real influence on this development - it just seemed to miraculously occur.
Bing and Frida are both described as having sight issues although they spend their days doing things that seem unaffected by limited vision. Bing's mental clarity is not questioned and yet he often goes off into lala land seeing visions of his dead wife and son that he finds convincingly real. He claims he is not religious yet questions his beliefs and those of others. Better editing could have cleaned up these inconsistencies and played more to what I felt were its strengths as listed below.
-Bing meets people and has experiences that challenge what he thought he knew and the kind of person he has been. (We see little evidence of this change until the very last pages.) -I have no military background but could understand that the 3 wars served by the 3 generations portrayed in this story were very different in nature and the attitudes toward them realistic. -There may be hope for a closer father-daughter relationship. After a recap of about 40 years of their lives, they finally reach a point where they might start to open up to each other and have an actual conversation.
Kept me up until 3 in the morning reading! Saved a few pages for this morning though, as I hate to finish a good book. I must admit, I didn't like the main character, Bing Butler, very much at first. But little by little, the author brings out his life story as he adjusts to a move across country to live with his daughter and her family. We learn about Bing's successes, failures and regrets. Truly a lesson that you are never too old to learn and grow emotionally. I also enjoyed the references to Huntington, WV. And I'm anxiously awaiting her next book, The Patron Saint of Ugly.
Marie Manilla takes you on a reluctant journey with Bing, everybody’s cranky grandfather. An uncomfortable road trip because Bing is not likable. He is biased, prejudiced and very much frozen in his life. His wife, Barbara has passed away and he misses her terribly. As with many older people, Bing cannot function very well on his own so he agrees to move in with his daughter in West Virginia. He drives from home he as lived in for over thirty years to a place and family filled with unknowns.
Ms Manilla, is the kind of writer who can wrench emotions from the reader with the nuances of her words. Bing’s journey and growth is fraught with hazards, and she pulls us along so that we become Bing, with his bad parts, his doubts and his painful learning process.
It is the mark of a good book when you, as the reader, sacrifice sleep to finish the next page and when you are done and have read the last line, experience loss. You wish there was more.
Amazing book...I still think about Bing and wonder if a second book is coming. His character is so real, so like someone you probably know... Totally engaging, tremendously engaging. A MUST read again kinda book!