Review by Jessica Manack
The Japanese practice of kintsugi has been much-referenced over the last years. Referring to a repair technique in which cracked ceramic ware is reassembled with glue and paint, often brilliantly golden or silver, the emphasis is usually on the surprising way a damaged item, instead of being cast aside, can be made even more beautiful in its mending. Less is made of the way the mending restores the function of the object, allowing it to embody its essential state of being.
For those who grew up in the industrial Rust Belt, industry was not only a language but a way of life. To be separated from one’s industriousness was perhaps the supreme devastation, one that Kelley Shinn came to know intimately. As a teenage elite track and field athlete living in Akron, she fell victim to bacterial meningitis that ultimately resulted in the loss of both her legs below the knee.
Had the doctors identified and treated her illness more promptly, she would not have had to suffer all she did. The settlement from a successful malpractice suit allowed Shinn to become independent at a young age. Fitted with prostheses and equipped with some means, she regained her mobility. But what was she running towards?
Seeking to once again enjoy the thrill of speed, she becomes a skilled off-road motorist, willing to face every bump head-on. However, in spite of this, and in spite of going to college, and becoming a mother, there is a nagging that a greater purpose awaits her, something always just over the horizon. Purchasing a rare, specially-outfitted Land Rover, which she dubs Athena, she embarks on a trip around the world with her young daughter, to meet with land mine survivors, showing them that loss of limb need not mean loss of hope.
After beginning in England, she travels to Serbia and Bosnia. Finding men who, like her, have had to learn new ways to navigate the world, she finds meaning in their pursuit of normalcy. When a classics professor friend joins her journey, the historic quests of Greek heroes give her further context, and she uses Greece as her home base while plotting the next leg of her voyage. Unexpectedly, like the survivors she had been seeking to understand, war changed the trajectory of her life, when the American War in Afghanistan curtailed her travels and forced her to stay in one spot, to be still, to become rooted to a place without running from discomfort.
It is in the rhythm of work, of home-building, that Shinn finds meaning: “I help…build stone walls, harvest olives…I sweep the floors of our house, gather firewood, wash laundry in the sink and hang it out to dry.” (215) Along the way, her daughter is an anchor, enabling Shinn to center herself in the syncing of their heartbeats as they fall asleep side-by-side at night.
As Shinn leaps into each new leg of the journey with the zeal of a high schooler keeping an eye on the finish line, with the speed of one who’s been used to racing for most of her life, our heads spin. To read this book is to ride along on an improbable journey, being awed at the reserves of strength our narrator holds within. One wants to feel the whole world the way Kelley does, feeling both the miracle of having survived what many would not have, and also the pressure to make a fluke tragedy mean something.
Shinn realizes that we all bear individual burdens, but the fact that we do bear them is what makes suffering timeless and universal. “Leonidas is dust in the wind, too, but I’d rather they still be telling a story about me 2,500 years later like the one they do about him. I’d rather be a story than a line.” (163) The forward motion – the resiliency – is her particular talent.
Today, Shinn makes her home on remote Ocracoke Island, similar to the land she has come to relate to, with space to ruminate, subject to the tides, the weather out of her control. Shinn’s resiliency serves her well, as she works to rebuild her home and community after the devastation of storms, as many times as she needs to, her life becoming more beautiful, glimmering more brightly, with each repair. When one can be the calm eye, it does not matter how fierce the tempest swirls around us.
The Wounds That Bind Us by Kelley Shinn
West Virginia University Press, 2023, paper
Jessica Manack holds degrees from Hollins University and lives with her family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her writing has recently appeared in Maudlin House, Still: the Journal and Litro Magazine. She is a recipient of a 2022 Curious Creators Grant. Keep up with her work at http://www.jessicamanack.com