Review | The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors,
by Michele Young–Stone
Shaye Areheart Books, 2010
Lightning haunts Becca Burke and Buckley Pitank. After being struck as a child, Becca can’t get lightning out of her head. When her grandmother’s dog is later struck and killed, Becca begins to believe that she attracts electricity like a human lightning rod. While Becca fears that lightning will find her again, Buckley is actually looking for it and trying to capture it for himself. The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, the first book from Michele Young–Stone, swarms with people searching and running, all on an inevitable collision course with one another. Lightning punctuates their lives, scarring their landscapes and leaving jagged, charred lines behind.
When lightning strikes Becca in her driveway, her mother and father are so preoccupied by their respective vices—alcohol and women—that neither pays her much attention:
She hobbled inside to the den. With blood trickling down her shin, her voice shaky, she said, “Dad, I got struck by lightning.”
He sat on the sofa. “If you got struck by lightning, you’d be dead.” He didn’t look up.
Becca’s parents can’t believe that something so extreme could have happened; however, the reader already knows that the seemingly impossible can and will happen. Again and again.
Buckley’s mother has vices, too. Abigail Pitank is weighed down—by her obesity, by her overbearing mother, and by her secrets; however, she values Buckley above all else, even above herself. Lightning finds Abigail, too, and her death confirms Buckley’s suspicion that there is no God. Buckley writes, “I didn’t take lightning seriously until it took my mom, who didn’t deserve to die. I think I suffer survivor’s guilt.” He begins to see lightning not as an act of God, but as a cruelty of nature, something wild and almost completely unpredictable. Buckley becomes both fearful and fascinated.
This tragedy leads him to write The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, a small guide that has very few readers. In fact, Becca Burke is the only one ever to have ordered the book directly from the publisher, and she writes Buckley a note of thanks, saying “I didn’t know (until your book) there were other survivors . . . like me.” Finally, she has found someone who can understand the confusing muddle of electricity that rattles around inside her. From the beginning, even before meeting, their connection is clear. Becca thinks, “He’s like my brother. Can I have a brother? Am I allowed that? Can I adopt a family member?” Through events too significant to be just coincidence, their lives, and people in their lives, cross again and again. They are drawn together like lightning and metal, in a necessary and fundamental way. More and more the reader begins to understand that coincidence really isn’t coincidence at all. Pieces are simply falling into place.
Family is created, not by blood, but by shared experiences and fate. In some way, everyone is struck, “witnesses to lightning strikes suffer from shock similar and sometimes comparable to the victim’s shock . . . In simpler terms, the lightning had touched them all.” Lightning bonds Buckley, Becca, their friends and families like grains of sand, struck, and turned to glass.
True, Young–Stone has chosen to explore familiar themes—dysfunctional families; young people searching for recognition, acceptance, understanding—but this author approaches the topic in a wholly interesting and original way. The dual narration, with the chapters alternating between Becca’s story line and Buckley’s, keeps the pace quick and the story fresh. The reader wants to continue, not only because the characters are quirky and fun, but because they are credible—awkward and embarrassed, imperfect in their desires and obsessions. Because Buckley doesn’t always know the answers, we relate to him; because Becca doesn’t always make the best decisions, we root for her. The reader thrills at the opportunity to watch their life lines approach, diverge, and eventually weave together.
Like a modern fairy tale, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors shows the reader how to survive the inevitable; its magical coincidences are both possible and impossible, beautiful and tragic. As Buckley’s guidebook tells us, ninety percent of lightning-strike victims survive. Both his guide and this novel show the reader that there are different kinds of survivors, and it is up to each person to find a way to go on. Buckley tells us, “Don’t feel guilty. Lightning is random. Don’t feel embarrassed. Don’t feel afraid. You are no closer to death than anyone else. You are a survivor.”
Michele Young-Stone earned her MFA in fiction writing from Virginia Commonwealth University.