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Have you ever noticed that the news gets a little quieter during the summer months? Why is this I ask? Perhaps terrorists, murderers, rapists and thieves find the heat too unbearable to go about their business. More likely it's the reporters who are off on their holidays. Whilst big stories like the July bombings and Jacko's death will make copy, the usual scare mongering that dominates the 9 colder months are not as present. Instead we get pull out supplements about 'Big Brother'. One area of scare mongering that has fallen off a little is the financial ruin we find ourselves in. Whilst I wait for the inevitable doom mongering to return in early September I hold on to the fact that although things are bad now they are nothing compared to the Great Depression of the 30s. Reading about how bad things got for the poor people across the globe then would surely make me worry about it reoccurring.
Perry is a 16 year old boy fast becoming a man in JFK era America. His father is too ill to work and with a mother and several siblings to look after he works down the local mine. Unfortunately, the mine is currently closed as the miners are striking for better wages. This has not stopped the company from bringing in non-union miners to work the seams. When Perry becomes involved in a violent act against 'the scabs' he decides to embark on a one of the Government youth assignment courses till the heat cools off. Will Perry ever be able to drag his family out of poverty and their dependence on the mining companies?
'To the Bright and Shining Sun' is a thought provoking and bleak novel. This is not a book about high society or the rich, but about the poorest of the poor. Told from the perspective of the poor white miners of the Southern States 'Bright' is a different take on the Great Depression from what I have read before. Perry is part of a proud working class family who have struggled to succeed, but are being beaten left and right. The pure grind of life drips off the page because James Lee Burke is such a poetic writer at times. Although you want Perry to escape his life of near slavery you know that it's almost impossible - death in the mines or in a bar brawl is far more likely.
It is the character of Perry that makes the book worthy of reading. If it had just been the constant depression and spirit crushing description of the era I could not have lasted. It was in these dark moments that I felt the time period most, but also areas that made me dislike the book as it was hard going. Therefore, Perry is vital from the reader's perspective as he is someone we can place our hope in. Not the most intelligent of lads his simple logic is engrossing enough that you like him despite his aversion to authority and habit of bringing about his own downfall. The sections were he is in the Government training scheme were my favourite as I felt that you could see him grow from an immature boy into the type of man his family needs.
The issue I had with the book was not with the character of Perry or Burke's great description of Depression era US. The central narrative was just not strong enough for me to have that much interest in what was going on. Although things happen they do not actually go anywhere and that is a pet hate of mine. Burke has put a lot of faith that his portrayal of the era would be enough. In many respects it should be as his descriptions are very evocative and do make you feel like you are there. However, the most interesting elements were perhaps too academic in nature such as the ins and outs of the unions in 30s America. If I was going to read into great detail about this sort of thing I would probably get a non-fiction book out.
What you are left with when reading 'To the Bright and Shining Sun' is a book that showed great promise, but failed to deliver on a basic level. The high minded areas of place and time are there, but not having a compelling story within this world means that you lose a lot of the impact. I would have liked Perry's story to be pushed even further to the forefront and have a structured narrative around him. Instead the character flits from place to place constantly changing his mind almost as if to suit what area Burke wants to go into greater depth next. I enjoyed the book with its interesting setting, but I still feel it could have been a lot better with a stronger story.
Author: James Lee Burke
Price: amazon uk - £5.49
play.com - £5.49