One of our recommended books is Kin by Shawna Kay Rodenberg

KIN

A Memoir


A heart stopping memoir of a wrenching Appalachian girlhood and a multilayered portrait of a misrepresented people, from Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award winner Shawna Kay Rodenberg.

When Shawna Kay Rodenberg was four, her father, fresh from a ruinous tour in Vietnam, spirited her family from their home in the hills of Eastern Kentucky to Minnesota, renouncing all of their earthly possessions to live in the Body, an off-the-grid End Times religious community. Her father was seeking a better, safer life for his family, but the austere communal living of prayer, bible study and strict regimentation was a bad fit for the precocious Shawna.

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A heart stopping memoir of a wrenching Appalachian girlhood and a multilayered portrait of a misrepresented people, from Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award winner Shawna Kay Rodenberg.

When Shawna Kay Rodenberg was four, her father, fresh from a ruinous tour in Vietnam, spirited her family from their home in the hills of Eastern Kentucky to Minnesota, renouncing all of their earthly possessions to live in the Body, an off-the-grid End Times religious community. Her father was seeking a better, safer life for his family, but the austere communal living of prayer, bible study and strict regimentation was a bad fit for the precocious Shawna. Disciplined harshly for her many infractions, she was sexually abused by a predatory adult member of the community. Soon after the leader of the Body died and revelations of the sexual abuse came to light, her family returned to the same Kentucky mountains that their ancestors have called home for three hundred years. It is a community ravaged by the coal industry, but for all that, rich in humanity, beauty, and the complex knots of family love. Curious, resourceful, rebellious, Shawna ultimately leaves her mountain home but only as she masters a perilous balancing act between who she has been and who she will become.

Kin is a mesmerizing memoir of survival that seeks to understand and make peace with the people and places that were survived. It is above all about family-about the forgiveness and love within its bounds-and generations of Appalachians who have endured, harmed, and held each other through countless lifetimes of personal and regional tragedy.

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  • Bloomsbury
  • Hardcover
  • June 2021
  • 352 Pages
  • 9781635574555

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$28.00

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About Shawna Kay Rodenberg

Shawna Kay Rodenberg is the author of KinShawna Kay Rodenberg holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Consequence, Salon, the Village Voice, and Elle. In 2016, Shawna was awarded the Jean Ritchie Fellowship, the largest monetary award given to an Appalachian writer, and in 2017 she was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. A registered nurse, community college English instructor, mother of five, and grandmother of one, she lives on a hobby goat farm in southern Indiana.

Praise

The 2017 recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award

“Shawna Kay Rodenberg tells her story with a near-heroic self-awareness and insight into her family, her Appalachian ancestors, her spiritual suffering and religious sustenance, the damage done by generations of abuse, and the damage repaired by love and her own self-witness. She is a masterful storyteller, and I have tremendous admiration for her lucid courage and for the way her personal resiliency seems to have generated a specific kind of prose, both powerful and kind.” –  Rosanne Cash

“Whatever you believe about Appalachia, prepare to have those beliefs upended, or at least beautifully complicated. Unless, of course, you are from there, and then prepare to glimpse what is possible. Kin is about remembering ‘who and what’ we are-to not only making peace with that, but to shape it into something remarkable” –  Nick Flynn, author of This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire

“This startling memoir of a wild soul will electrify you. The unbreakable Shawna Kay rises again and again to forgive, despite every institution that failed her.” –  Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of Mothers, Tell Your Daughters

“An intimate portrait of hardscrabble life in a much-derided, little-understood place. With the grit of the damaged yet hopeful, Rodenberg crafts the raw notes of faith, addiction, and generational trauma into a hymn to survival. By focusing on the deeply personal lived experience of a family, Kin contains worlds.” –  Michael Patrick F. Smith, author of The Good Hand

“A remarkable story that will stay with you long after you have finished reading.” –  Rose Andersen, author of The Heart and Other Monsters

Discussion Questions

1. The first chapter of Kin takes place in 2017, when Shawna acts as a spokesperson for her community for a segment on a news station, and also spends time with her parents and sister. The newscaster sends Shawna an email with a list of stock shots she’d like to film, including “signs of blight, and signage indicating this is Trump country.” How does this beginning frame the ensuing chapters? How does Shawna complicate or subvert commonly held narratives about Appalachian culture throughout the memoir?

2. The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, about Wilder’s rural midwestern childhood in the 1870s, are some of the only entertainment that Shawna is permitted when she lives in The Body religious community. She continues to refer to the books frequently, comparing her own life, in its many iterations, with Laura’s. Why did Shawna find so much comfort in the Little House books? How does the effect of these frequent allusions change as she gains clarity and perspective on her family’s lifestyle? What was Shawna’s intention as a writer in drawing a parallel between her childhood and Laura’s, despite a century between the two?

3. How does Shawna’s relationship with her father and her understanding of his behavior shift as she ages? When do his actions seem validated by a sense of morality and religiosity, and when are they senseless and terrifying? Are they ever both? At what points does Shawna feel love, respect, fear, resentment, or empathy in relation to her father, and why? How does her mother respond to her father’s anger, and to what extent does she act as Shawna’s protector?

4. Kin alternates chapters from a first-person perspective, moving chronologically through Shawna’s coming of age, with chapters written in the third person, reconstructing stories from the lives of her parents and other relatives. Why is the book structured this way, and how does its composition emphasize themes of shared history and intergenerational trauma? How does a depiction of the family’s past help you to understand and empathize with their decisions?

5. How do the first-person recountings differ from the reconstructed anecdotes? How does the experience of reading about a multitude of individuals, from a variety of settings and time periods, compare to reading about one author’s memories? To what extent do they form a single collective story, and to what extent do they remain distinct from one another?

6. Shawna attends five different schools before she reaches sixth grade. What does school represent to her, as she exits her insular religious community and rejoins public life? Consider her interactions with teachers and peers. In what way is school a site of punishment or shame, and what is it a source of pride and increased independence?

7. Discuss the role of sexuality in the memoir. What messages does Shawna receive from the Church about sexuality and desire, particularly female sexuality and desire? How do her parents—explicitly or implicitly—reinforce those messages? How does she describe the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of an adult member of the church? When does Shawna begin to understand her childhood urges and behavior? What does she choose to omit, and why?

8. Shawna describes her parents as having a vacillating level of religious devotion and involvement in the church after they leave The Body. Rules, including what she’s allowed to wear and consume, change back and forth accordingly. Additionally, she often finds that her sister is treated differently than her for similar infractions, or isn’t tempted to break the rules at all. Discuss the ramifications this kind of inconsistency has on Shawna’s psyche. How does Shawna perceive her struggle to behave as she’s expected to, and how does her perception of morality and deviancy develop or change?

9. Consider the role of gender and womanhood in Shawna’s life. How are women’s expectations communicated within the Church and within Shawna’s family culture, and when do they conflict with one another? How does Shawna consolidate potentially conflicting messages surrounding womanhood? When does she resist or subvert gendered expectations? How does she respond to her mother’s choices, and when does she empathize and help the reader empathize with them?

10. When Shawna’s father tells her about the coal mine workers in Kentucky, he says, “‘Living in bondage like that is a kind of death.’” Shawna “knew he was thinking of his own father, kneeling to pick coal from the earthen walls that surrounded him, carrying it through dark tunnels like an ant.” How, too, are expectations of masculinity oppressive for the men in Shawna’s family? How do each of the institutional choices available to her father (the coal industry, the military, and higher education) ultimately fail him? Consider the letters he writes from his military service in Vietnam. In light of these experiences, how do you understand his turn to extremist religion?

11. Shawna writes, “Until we moved to Kentucky, I hadn’t really heard my parents talk much about how much money we did or didn’t have,” but that “the five or six years we lived in Minnesota cost my parents more than I understood at the time.” How does financial anxiety permeate the background of Shawna’s childhood? Did the Body financially exploit its members? More broadly, how is poverty inherited, and how is it self-perpetuating? Why is it so hard for Shawna and the people in their life to leave their hometowns or to change their cultural or economic status? Why might they choose to stay?

12. What support systems may have helped Shawna succeed in college? To what degree was she internally and externally obstructed from receiving that support?

13. Discuss the memoir’s conclusion, wherein Shawna becomes pregnant with her first child and agrees to marry an older man she hardly knows and does not love. She says that, during her engagement, she “wasn’t suicidal” but “often felt like [her] old dog, Red, when my father had found her chained to a post outside the sewer plant, half-strangled.” How do you explain her decision to marry and her parents’ reactions to the marriage? In what way do her new circumstances feel liberating, and how do they continue to constrain? To what degree has Shawna processed the traumas of her upbringing?

Excerpt

Prologue

2017

I am trying to sneak two ounces of primo marijuana that I have carried all the way from Evansville, Indiana, to Seco, Kentucky, past the producer of the CBS Evening News and into the double-wide trailer where my father anxiously waits for it. Two ounces is his minimum monthly preference, and we are nearing the end of the month. I can’t see him, but I know he is cagey, because he is always cagey.

I am acting as a sort of guide for CBS, an ambassador to this region, the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, often as inscrutable and inaccessible to outsiders as a war- torn third- world country. I have begrudgingly become a tour guide, a bridge, a translator, and a mediator. I have done this work in some capacity several times, always unpaid, for independent film-makers, for NPR, and now for CBS.

This particular producer, a nervous, well- meaning blonde with doe eyes and the patrician bearing of a New England soccer mom, contacted me after she read an article I wrote about my job teaching English at a community college in eastern Kentucky. The piece detailed the experiences of some of my dual- credit high school students, who, after the foundation of their already run- down high school was irreparably damaged by nearby blasting, were crammed into a tiny middle school, where they remained four years later. The students, bright and full of promise, were fighting despair.

The producer flattered me and called my left- leaning article enlightening and moving. She asked if I had experienced any blowback in painting an negative picture of local politics, and I explained that the superintendent of that high school had insisted someone replace me— he didn’t want me teaching his kids. She said that CBS was putting together a news segment on the proposition of school choice in Appalachia and asked if I would be willing to help. I had reservations for many reasons— my fear of public speaking, my worry that I might be somehow responsible for yet another unfair, stereotypical representation of the mountains and people I love—but I agreed, as I had before, because I believed school choice was just another way to undermine funding for Letcher County schools, and because, as my mom put it, “If you don’t help them tell the story right, who will?”

A few days later the producer emailed me with a list of everything she’d need:

an interview with me, somewhere related to my childhood, she thinks maybe at a diner

B- roll of me in the country, walking on a back road

photos from my childhood

photos of my parents or grandparents in a one- room schoolhouse an interview with a passionate teacher who is against school choice

but who voted for Trump

interviews with students from families experiencing hardship, she specifies “father unemployed, drug issues, etc.” (Here she adds that they will conduct these interviews in a sensitive way.)

B- roll of beauty shots of rolling hills and winding streams, remnants of the mines, abandoned schools, churches, shots of various “hamlets” like Seco, shots of the local Walmart and Dollar Stores, signs of blight, and signage indicating this is Trump country

I told her how much I disliked Mountain Dew–mouth and dirt- floor stereotypes. I explained that not only are those stories hopelessly incomplete and exploitative, they also widen the chasm between Appalachians and outsiders, the last thing we need. She assured me she understands. She uses the word sensitive a lot.