Jeff Hillard’s new YA novel Shine out of Bedlam follows a cast of colorful characters through 1968 Bedlam, Ohio, following the shocking burning of the Empire warehouse. Chief among these characters is the white teen protagonist Shine Ross who secretly smokes, plays a mean trumpet, and hops trains with his African American best friend Moondog Weasel.
The story by Hillard, an associate professor of English in the Department of Liberal Arts, begins when the warehouse, which was a huge job source for many of the town’s residence, burns to the ground. As a result, Shine’s and Moondog’s suspicions are aroused, but their questions begin to lead to trouble. While the main theme of the novel follows the mystery of the burnt warehouse, it is undercut by a dozen other subplots: Shine’s search for his uncle’s lost Amazon parrot Jojo; Shine’s sister Allison’s love affair with Moondog’s brother Ulysses; Shine’s own teenage romance; his train-hopping adventures; the arrival of the Black Panther Party in Bedlam; and so much more. Punctuated by short, clipped sentences, the novel packs a lot of action into its 275 pages that never leaves the reader bored.
Even with the fast-paced plot and mystery of the warehouse, there is one element that stands above all others: the characters. And who could be bored with such original characters? Pretty much every type of story has been told in every genre, but what makes each story unique is the cast of characters because no two well-developed characters are the same, and if there is one thing author Jeff Hillard excels at, it is presenting the reader with unique characters.
Shine, the most well-developed of the cast, is full of quirks and personality. For instance, he decided he wanted to smoke when he was fifteen but was too scared to get a pack of cigarettes from the machine, so he collected cigarette butts from beneath the bleachers at school until he worked up the courage to approach the machine. Another character, Officer Klump, aka “Breezy,” buys dozens of sweets and Twinkies at the local grocery, and he’s always willing to allow Shine and Moondog take a dip in his pool. The characters are who really make the story, and it is through their eyes that we get the most interesting version of events.
Of course, the story of Shine out of Bedlam is in itself an important and relevant one. Set in a racially divided town during a time of chaos—both from the warehouse destruction and 1968 political happenings across America—it provides insight into what happens when a country is divided, something that could easily be applied to current times. Hillard explores the feelings of his characters during such a tumultuous time, and I think he provides a perspective that is still relevant today.
Whatever genre you enjoy, I recommend giving Shine out of Bedlam a look. Full of unforgettable characters and relevant themes, the story is one that provokes thoughtful reflection and deserves a place on your shelf. Find your copy at Amazon.com, and also check out the article “Novel Talk: Jeff Hillard’s New YA Fiction Novel, Shine out of Bedlam” for a behind-the-scenes look into Hillard’s inspiration and publication of his first YA novel.