Northern Lights

by Christopher Verleger

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 12, 2019

Northern Lights

Author Raymond Strom's impressive debut novel, "Northern Lights," is a gritty, sullen, compelling account of a young man's voyage to find the mother who abandoned him. The ambitious story tackles a variety of personal and social issues, including sexuality, poverty and drug abuse. Although it takes place more than two decades ago, the rural setting and small-town mindset vividly resemble the misfortune and intolerance that are still very much present today, perhaps even more so.

The summer before his freshman year at the University of Minnesota, seventeen-year-old Shane Stephenson arrives in the village of Holm, where he last heard from his mother, who walked out on him and his late father. Holm is a broken, barren town with closed up factories and shops and rampant drug use. Determined to locate his mother, Shane rents a room and starts his investigation, knowing little more than her name and former address.

Shane's appearance (particularly his long hair) isn't exactly conventional, so he is often mistaken for a female, which doesn't bode well among some of the local residents, especially Sven Svenson, who repeatedly threatens and antagonizes him. When Shane isn't steering clear of Sven, he forges friendships with Jenny, J, Mary, and Russell. This cluster of maladjusted misfits ultimately causes more harm than good, but Shane's close relationship with Jenny and attraction to Russell help him better understand himself.

Strom's prose flawlessly and fastidiously conveys the intensity and wretchedness of Shane's predicament and surroundings, and yet there is a beauty and poetry to it that implies a sense of hope, however minor and doubtful. Shane's plight is riddled with danger and disappointment, but he manages to withstand a series of obstacles that would likely deter or defeat someone twice his age.

Not only is homophobia alive and well in Holm, but the graphic depiction of racist behavior is eerily similar to recent events in Charlottesville. Furthermore, the pervasiveness of illegal drug use serves as a grim forecast that the worst is yet to come with the current opioid epidemic. The situation in Holm boldly reminds us to remember and acknowledge the past, otherwise, we're doomed to repeat it.

Shane doesn't anticipate he'll be any better or worse if and when he is reunited with his mother; finding her is just something he has to do. While Shane's quest to locate her is the plot behind the novel, his story is an admirable profile in courage, as well as a triumphant journey (however tumultuous) of self-discovery.

"Northern Lights"

by Raymond Strom


Chris is a voracious reader and unapologetic theater geek from Narragansett, Rhode Island.