After graduating from the writing program at the University of Iowa in 1978, Jayne Anne Phillips published numerous short stories and won several Pushcart prizes for her fiction. Her first major success came with Black Tickets (1979), a collection of stories narrated by disturbed characters, such as the nymphet in “Lechery” and the murderer in “Gemcrack.” Two other short-story collections, How Mickey Made It (1981) and Fast Lanes (1984), also received considerable critical attention, much of it positive. In 1984, Phillips published her first novel, Machine Dreams, a family saga narrated by four characters, and this book established her as an important fiction writer.
Her second novel, Shelter, also uses multiple voices and disturbed narrators, this time in a tale set at a girls’ summer camp in rural Appalachia. With a careful eye and the tools of a psychoanalyst, Phillips probes the troubled lives of two sisters, a little boy, and an escaped convict, all of whom become entangled in a complex relationship that culminates in a violent encounter with another former convict. Though not a great work, mainly because of its heavy-handed use of symbolism and its plethora of characters with serious emotional baggage, Shelter succeeds as art. The descriptions, rich in olfactory and auditory images, convey an impression of summer camp that lingers long after the novel is finished.
The story is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of four characters: fifteen-year-old Lenny, a Girl Guide; her younger sister, Alma, also a Girl Guide; the cook’s son, Buddy Carmody, who has just reached school age; and Parson, an escaped convict and religious fanatic, who has tracked his former cellmate to the outskirts of Camp Shelter in Shelter County, West Virginia. Parson has moved into an abandoned shack near Turtle Hole, a remote pond, and taken a job on a pipe crew. Phillips spends most of her novel delineating the characters and setting the stage for the tragic ending, which comes unexpectedly while Lenny, Alma, and their friends Cap and Delia are swimming in Turtle Hole.
The title Shelter suggests the theme of the novel. All the children are the victims of physical and psychological abuse. To escape their dysfunctional families and haunting memories, they have created shelters for themselves, retreating into their dreams or the intimacy of close friendships to escape reality. The camp offers the children a temporary refuge from their unfortunate home lives and the predatory dangers of the surrounding forest, into which they venture each night.
Except for the epilogue, which is dated four months later, the entire story takes place in late July of 1963, at the height of the Cold War, when Americans were busy building bomb shelters. Camp Shelter is a microcosm of America at this time, gripped by paranoia. Mrs. Virginia Thompson-Warner, the headmistress, has managed to create a pocket of civilization, as well as civility, in the heart of the wilderness. She requires the junior Girl Guides to attend Heritage classes and hear about the Soviet menace, including a furnace for burning Americans in the Soviet embassy in Washington. This camp-sponsored paranoia fosters fear among the younger children but provokes ridicule from the older campers, including Lenny and Cap.
Male workers in the area pose a more immediate threat to camp security. They are laying pipes in ditches, an activity with obvious Freudian implications, and Mrs. Thompson-Warner has forbidden them from coming near the camp. To the men, especially Parson, the girls are like a choir of angels or myriad sirens beckoning them with their songs. The workers speculate about the older girls and crack crude jokes. The only males permitted in the camp are Buddy, who occasionally visits the kitchen where his mother works, and Frank, the camp bugler, who is loved by all the girls. During one visit to Turtle Hole at night, Lenny and Cap see Frank fishing from a rock and lure him into the water for a hasty but passionate sexual encounter. Afterward, frightened by their impulsive behavior, they scurry back to camp.
The girls seem to regard Camp Shelter as a haven and associate the forest with the mysteries of adulthood and their repressed memories of abuse. As a child, Lenny was molested by her father, who allowed her to drink beer and then touched her in her sleep. Whenever Lenny thinks of home, she is filled with a sense of panic. Cap is also trying to escape her home life, in particular the memories of her parents’ fighting and the reality of their recent divorce, which...