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Oh, That Shotgun Sky by Sarah Chorn

Oh, That Shotgun Sky by Sarah Chorn
4.5
Book Name: Oh, That Shotgun Sky
Author: Sarah Chorn
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy Western
Release Date: February 16, 2021

The other night I caught the Cohen Brothers’ remake of True Grit. When I saw it in the theater, I thought it a profound meditation on the price of freedom—that fabled freedom of the Old West, which comes at such a high cost that most of us would choose the safety and strictures of “civilization.” Seeing it again the other night, I was struck by the glorious language. The characters, even the grimy, yellow-toothed outlaws, speak with refined elegance as they haggle over their freedoms—from justice, from debt, from the hangman’s noose. Upon this second viewing, I declared True Grit my favorite Cohen Brothers film (by a wide margin), and it might well make my all-time favorite list too.

The novella Oh, That Shotgun Sky may be my favorite book by Sarah Chorn, at least so far. Like True Grit, this is a meditation on the price of freedom gifted to us in glorious language. Chorn is a magician with words, somehow weaving cadence and vocabulary into beautifully vivid contrasts. Her characters are mostly hardscrabble pioneers—farmers, lawmen, outlaws, and whores—all hard people cracked open by tragic events. They’re like geodes; when Chorn’s characters split open, we get to see the crystalline beauty inside.

Oh, That Shotgun Sky is the second volume of the Songs of Sefate, and it details the aftermath of events in Of Honey and Wildfires, as experienced by mostly new characters. There’s Saul, the outlaw in mourning; Ned, a drug-addled lawman; Sally, a prostitute on the lam; and Abigail, an elderly pioneer. All of these people live in Shine Territory, the region controlled by the infamous Shine Company. This exemplar of corporate greed and exploitation has devastated the lives of thousands in its quest to extract shine, a sort of magical crude oil that has fueled this world’s industrial revolution. Even more than Honey and Wildfires, Shotgun Sky paints a grim picture of the Shine Company’s depredations. Exposure to shine changes you. Inside Shine Territory, the mineral is in everything one eats, drinks, or breathes, and long-term exposure turns people vibrant colors, like the technicolor munchkins Dorothy sees when she steps out her front door. Shine has more insidious effects too. It’s as addictive as heroine, and withdrawal is a waking nightmare.

In these ways and more, Saul, Sally, and Ned all bear the scars of service to the Company. Saul became an outlaw when, years earlier, down in the shine mines, he murdered a man to save a boy. Ned spent his childhood in the Company’s textile mills, where the shine soaked through his skin and left him an addict. Sally’s mother was an addict too; to fuel her shine habit, she sold Sally to a Company brothel. At the start of Shotgun Sky, Saul, Sally, and Ned are faced with a sudden chance at freedom, with all its terrifying and electrifying possibilities. Amidst physical and psychic suffering, they each stumble into Abigail’s farmstead. There they find refuge and solace, but this being an Old West story, you know the Company won’t relinquish its assets without a fight.

Western tropes are always in the background of the two Sefate books. In Of Honey and Wildfires, Arlen Esco, scion of the Shine Company, muses about his lifelong love of Western pulp:

Back in Union City, there had been all sorts of copper piece stories about the Wild West…Tales about shine slingers and wide-open spaces. About a landscape that pitted man against nature.

What is it about rootin’ tootin’ tales of gunslingers and homes on the range that so thoroughly captures the imagination? As a Gen Xer, I grew up on reruns of Bonanza, The Big Valley, and Wild Wild West (nascent steampunk!). I confess I was too busy reading J.R.R. Tolkien to crack open Louis L’Amour, but I’ve always loved western films, from the original True Grit to the modern one, from Silverado to the Unforgiven to The Quick and the Dead. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Colorado. Pikes Peak was the lodestone of my childhood and left me with a warped sense of direction: the mountains are always in the west. (This makes for a confusing drive north from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks—which look like hills, not mountains, to me.) The West is in my blood, and I still love tales of independent spirits fighting for justice and truth.

But I think the romance of the West touches all of us on a deeper level. Perhaps there’s something primal about it—leaving “civilization” for the “wild west” meant cutting the apron strings and heading into a dangerous, unknown world on one’s own, where it takes not only grit but wisdom to survive. In “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx, a pair of teenagers build a homestead out on the prairie, but things don’t turn out too well in their Little House. Nature and isolation are dangers in and of themselves, and survival is a kind of miracle. Maybe this is why the Old West looms so large in our imaginations.

Like her characters Arlen and Ned, Chorn was born back East but lives now in the West. The landscapes of Shine Territory mirror the Utah high desert she calls home. There are vast salt flats and bejeweled night skies that stretch forever. Sandwiched between is a tiny hearthfire, a little ember of hope in vast landscape where the dangers are as limitless as the possibilities. With Of Honey and Wildfires and Oh, That Shotgun Sky, Chorn invites you to her fireside and sings you a cowboy song of miracles that crawl out of deep wells of grief and pain. Together, the two books comprise a cathartic story of rent souls stitching themselves back together, and these days, those are exactly the tales we need.

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