Tales to Tell
The journey of a lifetime
By Anne Blythe
Kelley Shinn spent a long afternoon in a bar with poet Eric Trethewey some years back and told him a story that made him grab her by the shoulders and implore her to write it down.
Shinn had recently returned to the United States from a years-long trip abroad, a nomadic journey she organized to bring attention to the predicament of landmine survivors. As noble an undertaking as that might be, it was not the typical goodwill mission highlighting the plight of amputees whose limbs were blown off in war-torn lands.
A single mother at the time, Shinn — who has prosthetic legs below her knees — was still recovering from her own physical and emotional wounds when she embarked on her global expedition in a tricked-out Land Rover with her whip-smart 3-year-old, Celie. The Wounds That Bind Us, her story chronicling that journey, went through many renditions before becoming the memoir published this year by West Virginia University Press.
Shinn tried a series of short stories first. Next she rewrote it as a novel. “Then I had an agent from New York that was interested in it,” Shinn, now an Ocracoke resident, recounted at a reading at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. “And she said, ‘You say it’s based on autobiography. Give me a percentage.’ So I wrote her back and said at this point, it’s 75 percent true. She goes, ‘Here’s my problem. It’s too unbelievable for fiction. You need to rewrite it as memoir.’”
The narrative that came together over the next decade is a phenomenal adventure story that will pull you to the edge of your seat while marveling at Shinn’s candor, steely backbone, vulnerability and wisdom. She takes readers on this emotional ride with self-deprecating humor, artistic prose and a welcome hopefulness that oozes throughout the pages. There are times you want to sit her down, stop her from doing what she’s about to do and tell her the danger’s not worth it — think climbing onto wreckage of a bombed-out bridge in Bosnia high above the Neretva River to get the perfect photo. After all, there’s Celie to think about, the child she brought into the world after 52 hours of labor. Her daughter is her sidekick, a worldly little girl who loves her “to the moon and back.” Who will respond “I love you the whole universe” if Shinn succumbs to unnecessary risks?
Overwhelmingly, readers are more likely to be cheering for Shinn, engrossed in a story that keeps them hungering for the next escapade while also hoping that any one of the many interesting people she encounters along the way can keep her in check.
Shinn was a promising cross-country runner at 16 years old, when her body and life were forever changed by a rare form of bacterial meningitis initially misdiagnosed as flu. Although that’s not how she starts the memoir, she flashes back to that time in the hospital while thinking about landmine victims in Bosnia.
“I’ve got more wires running around and through me than an early desktop computer,” Shinn writes. “A month ago my coach was talking to me about scholarships for cross-country. Lord in heaven, how I wish I could jump off this bed right now and run, just run through the Metroparks, down the city sidewalks, run until my heart pounds in my chest, until the sweat breaks out all over my body and evaporates into thin air.”
There is a sense throughout The Wounds That Bind Us that Shinn is running. Running, running and running. She’s racing away from the pains and sorrows of her childhood and abusive relationships while, at the same time, jogging slowly toward healing and enlightenment. Shinn scratches at deep wounds from being put up for adoption by her birth mother and raised by an adoptive mother who beat her “in a quick rage, with a stick, a belt or a hand.” She explores the mindset that pushed her toward doomed romantic relationships like the one with a scheming first husband who glommed onto her after the well-publicized settlement of her malpractice lawsuit.
This is not a woe-is-me tell-all, though.
Shinn describes unforgettable scenes such as the overnight stay in a brothel with Celie; the off-road thrill rides on steep, rocky terrains; and the beautiful landscapes of Greece. Her stories are filled with memorable characters, from cab drivers to their neighbors in the United Kingdom; from her Greek classics professor turned travel companion to the soldiers, farmers and others with bodies forever altered by landmines; from the many people who care for Celie; all the way to Athena, the Land Rover (a trusted character itself) that does the transporting from England to Serbia, Bosnia and Greece.
It is well worth it to take the journey with Shinn, “that’s two Ns and no shins,” she jokes. She’s funny, daredevilish but relatable. That poet at the bar, a man she would have a relationship and son with, was right. Shinn’s story needed to be written. OH
Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.