Reviewed by Peter Deekle (Iran 1968–70)
Josh Swiller credits his deafness for his resilience. A contributing asset — be it a reinforcement or trial — might be his service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia that is evident in his perceptive insights into human nature. As a writer, Josh has demonstrated a “keen ear” for the internal motivations and interpersonal interactions of the characters in his new book.
Bright Shining World (Knopf, 2020) is a novel about young people coming of age in a chaotic and disturbing world. Its publication could hardly be timelier, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the fraught social and political climate of today. The author recounts that “anyone could feel — how battered people were by the rising apocalyptic tide, how deeply they wanted to just go to sleep and wake up in a better place.”
Writing about and/or for young adults is challenging — requiring a writer to develop a sharpened sense of the young reader. As writer Elizabeth Acevedo states, books for young adults require an opportunity for hope. I am not sure if Bright Shining World is more about or intended for young adults, but it expertly captures the nature and experience of adolescent angst as well as fortitude amid a world of mysterious crises. These conditions are aptly embodied by the novel’s protagonist, Wallace Cole, who lacks the care and attention of his career-driven father. Father and son move too frequently and change communities and high schools with every move — providing a destabilized setting that further isolates Wallace in his formative years. Having lost his mother to cancer at an early age, Wallace is left to fend for himself in every new community as his father takes unexplained professional assignments resulting in his absence.
Fanciful as the strange encounters with spiritual forces are, the novel illustrates the realities of young persons who crave the affection and regard of emotionally-stable parents. With a developing self-reliance and maturity, Wallace Cole, despite his father’s emotional absence, nevertheless seeks answers from the adult world for the mysteries and chaos surrounding him.
Like many young adult novels the strange events surrounding Jackduke Energy, a dominant regional power-generating enterprise that employs Wallace’s father, provide a context for Wallace and his high school classmates to take action and foster a sense of hope for their future. Jackduke, it turns out, seeks “to eliminate the fears of humanity by making sure they were never felt . . . [the company] was going to control people by emptying them out.” In the novel, it is only the young persons who seem both aware of and able to confront the negativity of the circumstances impacting their community.
The purpose of this book does not directly serve a moral function. As Jeff Vander Meer in his New York Times Book Review (April 18, 2021) comments, “books [should] be laboratories and experiments and it’s up to the readers to be moral.” However, in Bright Shining World Wallace Cole does encounter the opportunities for moral initiative. It is up to the young high school compatriots to address what is wrong with the community of North Homer. Wallace’s father informs his son that hysteria is evidenced in his new school, and when confronted by his son, he says he has “no choice,” but to take the job in the town. This theme of a parent’s passivity and inability to choose ones fate is dominant throughout the book. As Wallace observes, “we had spent our whole lives going right past each other or away from each other, never to each other, never with each other . . ..”
In the end, it is the son who takes action and, ultimately, exercises choices that will positively impact the future for himself and others.
Reviewer Peter Van Deekle began his Peace Corps service informally in the summer of 1963, as a teenage volunteer at headquarters in Washington, D.C. From that time onward he planned to serve abroad, and joined the 20th group of Volunteers to go to Iran in 1968. He has been an academic administrator in a variety of public and private colleges and universities and currently, having retired to the Washington, D.C. area, is the Community News Editor for the National Peace Corps Association. Deekle met his wife, Barbara Maier (Iran 1968–70) during service and both taught English in local schools. He and his wife live near one of their two children in suburban Maryland.