“Northern Lights” by Raymond Strom— Looking for Mom and Himself

Strom, Raymond. “Northern Lights”, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

Looking for Mom and Himself

Amos Lassen

Raymond Strom’s “Northern Lights” is set in the late 1990s in Minnesota where an androgynous youth searches for the mother who abandoned him as a child. Shane Stephenson arrives in Holm, Minnesota, with only a few changes of clothes, an old Nintendo, and a few dollars to his name. He is dealing the death of his father and now wants to find the mother who abandoned him as an adolescent, He has hopes that they will reconnect and in that way he will be able to better understand himself—hoping to reconnect, but also to better understand himself.
Holm’s residents are wary of outsiders, and Shane’s long blonde hair and androgynous looks draw attention from a violent and bigoted group in town, one of whom is the unhinged Sven Svenson. Shane is drawn in by a group of sympathetic friends in their teens and early twenties, all of whom are like him—similarly lost. These include the reckless and charming J and his girlfriend Mary; Jenny, a brilliant and beautiful artist who has dreams of getting out of Holm; and the mysterious loner Russell, to whom Shane, against his better judgment, is strangely attracted. As Sven’s threats of violence escalate, Shane faces a difficult situation and is forced to make a choice between his search for his mother, the first true friendships he’s ever had, and a desire to leave both his past and present behind entirely.

On the most basic level this is the story of a son searching for his mother, and for a connection with her as he deals with issues of abandonment and forgiveness. “Northern Lights” also looks at the complications, tensions, and dysfunction that can exist in those relationships, giving us an unforgettable world that we do not often get and a new kind of hero that we come to respect and admire.

This is a look at intolerance and addiction in one small through Shane whose mother abandoned them a long time ago and leaving him a $100 bill and later sending him a Christmas card with a return address in Holm, Minnesota. This small-town is one of death, alcohol, addiction, drugs, sex and bigotry.  Writer Strom takes us through family trauma, sexual identity, drug abuse and small-town despair.From the moment we meet Shane Stephenson, we feel his confusion. As if dealing with his father’s death and searching for his mother, he must come to terms with his past and his identity as a queer, androgynous teen living in a hostile environment.  What we read could still be true in Trump’s America. Although set in the Midwest,  Holm is a microcosm of the way so many live today. We see the terrors of the meth epidemic in the upper Midwest as well as get a look at the goodness of humanity. The overriding theme is the search for familial and sexual identity.

Shane Stephenson and his friends live in a difficult world where drugs and violence are everywhere and the hope of a better life seems hopeless. Strom has drawn sympathetic characters that we take on as friends.  The strong and powerful bonds of at-risk youth are evident and fully portrayed. Filled with both violence and tenderness this is a read that is not easily forgotten.

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