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2018 Reading Challenge

2018 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 25 books toward her goal of 175 books.
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Book Review: The Selah Branch by Ted Neill

I liked it. And yes, that is a simple statement about a fairly complicated book, but it is the salient fact, as far as my review is concerned. Much of the following is somewhat ancillary to that point, but I think important (obviously, or I wouldn’t have written it) nevertheless, so bear with me…

If you’re not familiar with the book, here’s the summary:

Kenia Dezy, a Georgetown college student, is unable to join her best friend in Haiti for summer practicum. Her dreams of helping those in impoverished communities are quickly dashed, until a professor suggests she study in Selah Station, West Virginia. The town has a rich history of black culture, as it was one of the stops of the Underground Railroad where escaped slaves would cross to Maryland, and that Selah Branch University was the first fully integrated university. As she discovers more about the town’s backstory, she learns that an industrial accident at the Selah Island Coal Processing Plant spread toxic waste throughout the town center, adjacent neighborhoods, and even the university campus. As a result, the area was declared uninhabitable.

Selah Station was once a multicultural environment, but now “there are just as many poor whites here as blacks.” Kenia also learns the truth about her father’s disappearance, as he came from a line of shamans and had the ability to time travel, which she inherited. He journeyed to another place and time but was unable to return. During her interactions, Kenia forms connections with many people in the town, including the Pennel family who has witnessed her ability to time travel. She, along with the family’s uncle, Mike, travel back to 1953 to stop the sabotage of the coal plant that changed the town forever.

In THE SELAH BRANCH, black college student Kenia Dezy journeys to the once multicultural town of Selah Station that in the 1950s experienced a horrific tragedy, and uses her ability of time travel to prevent it.

I liked it, and I’m not going to talk here about the politics it entails, the crafting of a black female protagonist by a white male author, the coverage of “Trump America”, millenial/post-millenial anger, socioeconomic disparities, or whether an author has an obligation to anything other than staying true to his/her/their story. I’ve seen a LOT of reviews that talk about all of those things, and that is any/every reviewer’s prerogative. Me, I’m here to tell you that I just plain enjoyed the story – reading it as a story, not a manifesto or treatise or how-to manual or anything other than fiction.

While I understand – and enjoy reading – other people’s opinions on all of those things, I also sometimes just enjoy reading whether people liked the story AS A STORY. Was it enjoyable to read or did it leave you worn down? Did it resonate in some way – be it political, emotional, or psychological – such that you felt it was worth the time you spent reading? Did you like the characters? The setting? Did it come full circle enough that you weren’t left confused or hanging? I can answer “yes” to all of those questions with this one.

Did I find a lot of the descriptions painful to think about because they forced me to confront problems that are still, unfortunately and for no acceptable reason AT ALL, plaguing our world? Did I find Kenia and many of her compatriots (and antagonists) to be angry and aggressive and did that make the reading sometimes difficult? Did I want there to be more justice, more retribution, more satisfaction for many of the characters? I can answer “yes” to all of those questions too – but they’re fundamentally different types of questions than the earlier ones, because they have to do with me as a reader rather than with the story per se.

It is important to remember that no reader reads in a vacuum; we all carry baggage that affects our ability to relate to a story. That’s a fact of life, and not the author’s issue to deal with but our own. By the same token, authors also come at stories with baggage (they are, after all, human too), and the rub is that this is both their issue AND ours because they choose to put their words into the world for people to react and respond to. To me, as long as an author is being true to the characters and the tale that is being told, that baggage is mostly not an issue for me to concern myself with: if I don’t like the story or find it to resonate with a basic level of authenticity, I don’t read it. If I find that the author’s personal perspectives come across on the page in a way that I cannot relate to or appreciate on their own merits within the construct of the story, I put the book down. I don’t expect every author to think like me (books would not be very interesting if they were all consistent with what’s in my own head or in my own experience!) or to present stories/theories/worlds that are in line with my own beliefs or biases.

It’s not an author’s job to make me feel good and complacent and comfortable; it’s their job to tell me a story. And sometimes that story is going to be uncomfortable and teach me something I may not want to learn. That is – to me – one of the great benefits of fiction; that authors can use stories to educate and illuminate (also, unfortunately, to darken and misinform, but that’s another issue for another day). But that’s a side benefit, like losing weight playing a sport you love. It’s not the goal or even the intent, just a pleasant side effect. I don’t think it’s fair that authors are criticized in fiction for failing to provide life lessons or solutions to problems beyond those in their narrative. That’s not the job of fiction. It’s not a how-to manual; it’s a story. The author’s obligation is to tell a tale. That’s pretty much it. There’s been a lot of attention on The Selah Branch’s politics, and on one hand that’s fine – people are talking, they’re talking about books, and they’re talking about tough issues. All good things. But I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate the story based on its politics alone.

I found it an enjoyable read with three-dimensional characters, with an interesting and uncommon setting and a fun time-travel twist that let the characters experience the world around them in a novel way. I think it basically came full-circle, although there is absolutely the possibility that more could happen with these characters and the larger world in a second book – and I liked that possibility. Neill doesn’t pull punches, and that makes his characters and their circumstances believable and engaging. I found it difficult and enlightening and painful and hopeful – sometimes at the same time. The writing was good, even when tangential to the main story, and the back-and-forth in time was easy to follow without ever feeling over-simplified.

I think Ted Neill has written a solid novel that is sure to generate conversation – and controversy. And I think that’s a good thing. I just hope that some of that conversation focuses on the story, because the story is worth it.

My thanks to the author for my review copy, which was provided without any expectations beyond a fair read, which I hope I have provided…

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