Raymond Strom’s debut novel takes place in a teeny tiny town called Holm, Minnesota. As desperately as I’ve tried, I cannot for the life of me find this town on a map. Even Googling the town leads me to people with the last name Holm. So maybe Holm is very, very tiny or doesn’t exist. Either way, I know a little about living in a small town, since Alexandria isn’t quite as big as the cities. But it’s still a wonderful place to live.
Shane Stephenson, recently graduated from high school, is kicked out by his uncle shortly after his father dies. With only a few clothes, an old Nintendo, and a few dollars, he arrives in the town where his absent mother was last seen: Holm, Minnesota. While staying in Holm, Shane befriends several wayward teens: a guy who goes by the letter J, his girlfriend Mary, and the reckless Jenny. Shane also meets–and later falls for–the misguided Russel, who inadvertently falls for him. Because of his long hair, Shane is often mistaken for a girl, then taunted and bullied by the men of Holm. One kid in particular quickly grows to hate Shane: Sven Svenson. On the jacket flap, Sven is described as “unhinged.” He quickly lives up to this description, chasing Shane in his truck early on in the novel, with Shane running, trying to get away from him.
One thing I appreciate about this novel is how real these teenagers are. They drink, take drugs, and swear. Their conversations, while sometimes drug-fueled rants, discuss how they might never get out of this small town, forced to bum around, doing drugs all day. Jenny worries the most, worries that she’ll be stuck in Holm forever. Shane, who starts out looking for his mother, asking around, living in her old house, but soon falls into a steady dug regimen, one he eventually breaks. With Jenny’s help, she mostly keeps him on the right path, but also backslides into her drug habit.
Northern Lights is very much a gritty novel, vivid and real. It was easy for me to picture these kids going cliff diving, or throwing a piece of plastic for one of J’s dogs. You can sense the boredom, the anxious tension to get out of such a small town. The scenes featuring the HOPE graffiti and the trains that go through Holm represent this tension.
There are a great deal of novels written about teenagers, but not every novel I come across about young people feels real to me. The characters come across as unrealistic sometimes, or fall flat. I feel like you have to search really hard for “real kids” in books nowadays, which is sad. I find myself searching for solid books, even books of poetry, when I browse the aisles in Target. (Last year, I found several good books of poetry. Now, it just feels like there’s this trend going around where you write poetry that feels too much like sentences chopped up to imitate poetry. But that’s another blog post entirely.) Northern Lights is such a book, featuring real kids with real problems and fears: youths who struggle with their identity, their futures, and their current living circumstances.
If you like reading gritty contemporary books, pick up a copy of Northern Lights. This is a book where “[e]verything is starlight”, where “[t]he nature of the universe is dependent on these chemical reactions, these constant explosions propelling matter to collide in new and more complicated ways” (p. 41).