Book Review: Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Letters to a Friend: Anybody Shining

By Jeanne E. Fredriksen

Anybody ShiningFrances O’Roark Dowell is an award-winning children’s author whose latest novel, “Anybody Shining” brings her readers to the mountains of North Carolina and into a world she loves.

Twelve-year-old Arie Mae Sparks lives in Stone Gap, N.C., in the early 1920s and knows little about the outside world beyond the National Barn Dance she hears on WLS-AM radio from Chicago. What she does know is that everyone else has something she desperately wants: one true, shining friend. When she learns that she has a cousin about her age living in Raleigh, she writes letter after letter to Cousin Caroline, even though she never once receives a letter in return.

At the same time, a settlement school is started near her home, and some children from Baltimore come for the summer. Arie Mae feels that she just might have found her one friend in Tom Wells. She doesn’t care that Tom has a limp and a weakened heart, and he doesn’t seem to care that Arie Mae doesn’t have new clothes or even shoes. That never stops him from exploring with Arie Mae, and it never stops Arie Mae from including him in activities.

But soon he is sent home to Maryland to recuperate away from Arie Mae’s influence.

Could Arie Mae be left on her own again – forever? Were her efforts all for naught?

A story filled with “haints” (ghosts) and bears, and an old lady who lives alone near Pilgrim’s Gap, “Anybody Shining” is an uplifting tale of determination.

The author cleverly pulls the reader into the story through an engaging and personable protagonist whose innocence is as endearing as her simple longing is palpable. And still, Arie Mae remains the picture of happiness and hope.

Each chapter opens with the beginning of Arie Mae’s next letter to her cousin, segues into a narrative about the happenings about which she writes, and ends with the letter’s closing. Arie Mae’s narrative is rich in detail, chronicling life in Stone Gap and juxtaposing American society – city folk coming to the mountains to teach modern methods while attempting to preserve folk arts and ways. Arie Mae even makes mention of embracing the modern convenience of ordering from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog (also out of Chicago).

One of the joys of Dowell’s writing is its Southern-ness attention to detail – the characters, the language, the settings. After graduating from Wake Forest University with a degree in English, she received her MFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Eventually, she moved back to North Carolina, where she lives with her family.

On her web site, Dowell states: “There’s no doubt that living in the South has had a strong influence on what I write. For the most part, I write books set in the South, in places where I’ve actually lived and know the people and the streets and the weather. I’ve listened to a lot of Southern voices talking, and they make their way into my stories, too.”

You don’t have to be 12 years old to take pleasure in “Anybody Shining.” Dowell’s unquestionable affinity for the mountains of our state, the people who live there, and their traditions shines through as brightly and as true as does young Arie Mae.

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Dowell, Frances O’Roark. “Anybody Shining.” New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division. 2014. Available in hardcover, as a digital book, and as an audiobook.