2022 nonfiction finalist

Shawna Kay Rodenberg | Kin: A Memoir

Shawna Kay RodenbergAbout the author
Shawna Kay Rodenberg holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Consequence, Salon, the Village Voice, and Elle. In 2016, Shawna was awarded the Jean Ritchie Fellowship, the largest monetary award given to an Appalachian writer, and in 2017 she was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award. A registered nurse, community college English instructor, mother of five, and grandmother of two, she lives on a hobby goat farm in southern Indiana.

About the book
Rona Jaffe Award-winning writer Shawna Kay Rodenberg’s gorgeous debut, Kin, is a hopeful, riveting, and multilayered story of an Appalachian family and childhood. When Shawna was four, her father spirited her family from their home in the hills of Eastern Kentucky to Minnesota, renouncing all of their earthly possessions to live in the Body, an off-the-grid End Times religious community—a bad fit for the imaginative and precocious Shawna, who possessed a writer’s sensibility from a young age. Soon after the leader of the Body died and revelations of sexual abuse came to light, her family returned to the same Kentucky mountains that their ancestors have called home for three hundred years. It is a community ravaged by the coal industry, but for all that, rich in humanity, beauty, and the complex knots of family love. Interweaving her own memories with genealogical research, Rodenberg approaches her family’s story—and the broader story of the Appalachian region—with an open heart and open eyes. Kin is a mesmerizing memoir but above all, a story of family—about the forgiveness and love within its bounds—and generations of Appalachians who have endured, harmed, and held each other through countless lifetimes of personal and regional tragedy.

Kin defies easy definition. Partly a memoir about growing up in an end-times religious community, partly the story of the author’s childhood in a dilapidated mining town, Kin is also a book about the complex and often fraught relationships between parents and children. Most important, Kin explores the richness and dignity of Appalachian life in the 1980s, and of people who are too often stereotyped in the media…Without overlaying the judgment of adulthood onto her experiences, Rodenberg writes from the perspective of a child who accepts the world around her as normal…Through it all, she writes about her difficult childhood with a sense of grace and generosity that keeps this book from being too painful to read…Fortunately as readers, we bear witness to the fact that she has put these stories to paper. The echoes of an important chapter from America’s past call out from these pages, and Rodenberg’s stories of lives that are generally overlooked make for essential reading.” —Washington Post 

“From the opening pages of this singularly American memoir, author Shawna Kay Rodenberg enchants the reader with her tale of life amid a cult, and the sharp divide between her kinfolk in Kentucky's Appalachia and everyone else in the country. This super-smart, gorgeously gritty debut smashes stereotypes and has a similar can't-take-your-eyes-off-it appeal as Tara Westover's Educated.” —Oprah Daily 

“Refuge is difficult to come by, but Rodenberg finds it in art, music and books…She intersperses third-person accounts of her mother's life in Kentucky and her father's before he went to Vietnam, including pages of letters he wrote to his parents while he was stationed there. The change in perspective is jarring, heightening the surreal aspects of the book and emphasizing its Southern gothic aesthetic…Life isn't neat, and she leans into that, digging deep with dense but readable prose and providing compelling insights.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune 

“Rodenberg's unusual childhood was spent partly in her family's ancestral Appalachian home and partly in a Minnesota end-times cult her father joined in the wake of his shattering experiences in Vietnam. Those experiences are illuminated in this memoir by brilliantly detailed writing. Scorning the stereotypes, she gives us a story about forgiveness and love.” —Newsday