Reviewed by Sam Slaughter
In his second novel, Charles Dodd White once again drives deep down the roads of his fictional Sanction County, an area in the Appalachian Mountains where, it seems, the ties that bind do so until circulation of the right and the real cuts off and the ghosts of the past walk the streets as if they never left.
A Shelter of Others follows Mason and Lavada Laws, married but separated because of Mason’s time in jail on drug-related charges. During his incarceration, Lavada takes on the responsibility of caring for Mason’s father, Sam, whose mind, much like his body, deteriorates rapidly over the course of the novel. Far from being her only responsibility, Lavada, too, works at a diner in town to maintain what stands as a normal life. When finally released, Mason Laws travels home to Sanction County, in a feeble attempt to reconnect with the world he left behind. Though in the same place, Mason and Lavada remain estranged, struggling to each find the meaning in their own lives while attempting to navigate the rugged, claustrophobic landscape that holds both of them. Daily, Mason and Lavada—as well as each of the other characters that populate the area—are forced to face the ghosts of their pasts, family histories that hang like heavy fog around them.
The strongest part of A Shelter of Others is the superbly-crafted madness that, almost from the outset, comes to life not only in the characters, but in the wilderness around them. White not only injects a healthy dose of madness into each of his characters, but he deftly vivifies the landscape itself with the same, making the land as much a character as the humans of Sanction County. Whatever the issue, the land intensifies it, making the problems expand beyond the personal issues of a few people in Appalachia. White’s work delves deeper, drilling into the pieces of humanity that everyone can associate with at one point or another, even if we do not want to.
The language, too, stands out as a hallmark of White’s novel. It is hard to go more than a passage or two without being struck by a powerful sentence or even an entire paragraph. We see, in White’s words, an expression of the harsh beauty that is Sanction County. Line after line encapsulates the stories of love and dedication, passion and loss, first pulling readers in, and then pulling them along right until the very last page. It is easy to get lost in the stark prose and find yourself worrying right along with the characters about what is just around the mountain.
One of the only downfalls of A Shelter of Others, and it isn’t as much a downfall as a shortcoming, is the length. In three parts, White attempts to paint full pictures of a number of characters, namely Lavada, Mason and Sam. With these three, readers are given more or less enough to feel fulfilled in reading about their plights. A Shelter of Others, though, does not have the space to attend to some of the lesser characters, such as officer Cody Gibbs, Lavada’s love interest Dennis or the crippled Irving. There is simply not enough space to delve into the characters that White gives us a glimpse of. This two-hundred-and-sixteen page novel could easily be three hundred or more, but White chooses instead to keep the language tight.
A Shelter of Others is engaging in a way that pushes beyond mere Appalachian stereotypes and caricatures while speaking to the larger issues of madness. White’s prose echoes the Rough South and Appalachian writers that have come before him, but then surpasses them, creating a definitive voice for Appalachia.