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Boneyard

Stephen Beachy’s novel Boneyard is different, even original. Appealing perhaps to a younger readership, the book shows a young man’s revolt against the Amish community he came from, as well as against the outside world. It parts ways with the usual sentimentalized picture of Amish society (like in Beverly Lewis’ novels). It is also different in including the author and his editor battling with each other as part of the story—and that battle in interesting footnotes! Lyrical in parts, Boneyard depicts a young man’s dark fantasies that evolve and transform right up to the end. Clearly Beachy is questioning how much of reality we can know in fiction.

Stephen Beachy’s novel Boneyard is different, even original. Appealing perhaps to a younger readership, the book shows a young man’s revolt against the Amish community he came from, as well as against the outside world. It parts ways with the usual sentimentalized picture of Amish society (like in Beverly Lewis’ novels). It is also different in including the author and his editor battling with each other as part of the story—and that battle in interesting footnotes! Lyrical in parts, Boneyard depicts a young man’s dark fantasies that evolve and transform right up to the end. Clearly Beachy is questioning how much of reality we can know in fiction.

The book’s premise is also unique: the idea that in tackling a fictional character’s manuscript for its veracity, the novel’s author and his editor, Judith, show their lives to be involved. Stephen Beachy, abbreviated to SB, met 14- or 15-year-old Jake Yoder (not his real name) in 2006 while working on an article about the October 10, 2006 shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Carl Roberts, a milkman, shot ten girls in that schoolhouse, apparently still grieving for his infant daughter’s death (but he had also abused children in his past). Jake lived nearby, and both he and the author were haunted by this event. Later, Beachy came into possession of Jake’s manuscript, parts of which were burnt, forcing SB to fill in the burnt parts. Jake’s manuscript presumably contained stories of his life after leaving the Amish (which he did after his mother’s suicide) and becoming a rock star. But nothing is certain.

A number of motifs get repeated throughout the narrative: an imaginary twin, a girl with hair “the color of light itself,” a boring girl and a boy with an oddly shaped head; so-called facts like Jake being a good speller and a woman named Darlene; and events such as stones being thrown at a train. Each time the motif shows up, it is in a different context; for instance, Darlene is a counselor and later a substitute teacher. Sometimes Jake has a “sister;” or is she his mother who committed suicide and left him behind to be brought up by the Amish? Undoubtedly it’s not an accident that Jake’s favorite movie is “Shadow of a Doubt.” Not only are his life’s details in doubt, but so are SB’s—his editor believes much of this story is his own, but Judith’s own obsession is shown emerging from her life. It’s not unusual for an author to reflect on his own life in his fiction, but the bio at the back of the book does not fit the events of the novel. This debate between editor and author makes the footnotes fun to read.

If this is an Education of a Young Man story, it is a dark one. Jake is homosexual and is raped by his language arts teacher, after which he searches for his education in extremes, seeking out hermaphrodites as company and using many drugs. As he says of himself, “My soul is wild and discordant and angry. Like an untethered white horse stampeding at night.” Earth is a “tomb,” and he has escaped the “coffin” of the Amish. He emphasizes the disturbing in society: “The hospital is shaped like intestines and it is full of fluorescent lights that make the sick people look like they’re already dead.” Sometimes, however, images become beautiful:

In the moonlight, this city looks like it was infused with a luminous powder from another world. There are no people and no cars in the night, but as they [the twins] creep through the darkness something happens in the sky. Strange lights that quiver like jelly dance around each other. Perhaps this is the aurora borealis. It is the saddest and most beautiful shape-shifting thing they have seen.

The reader will learn about the Amish, probably the most real details. But this novel also keeps you going in its shape-shifting world, and parts of it will not be forgotten. If there is any consistent theme, it is bones—the light color of them, the skeleton that is our body’s base. This is part of Jake’s fascination with death; the word “boneyard” becomes real in one episode and is also a one-time name for his rock band. However, perhaps this novel should have taken the advice of one of Jake’s teachers, “Creative expression is a wonderful thing. But there are limits.” In the book’s unsubstantial world, we often don’t know where we are, and there’s only the merest chronological structure from childhood to adulthood. The reader might become frustrated with no clarification at the end, but if you want a unique jumble, this is it.

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