Many of us went to school with a Shuggie Bain. Depending on what school you attended, there might be several pupils like him in each class. They were easy to identify because of the pinched, dazed look of the perpetually hungry and sleep deprived. Their clothes were threadbare, ill-fitting and none too clean. The more fortunate among us were uncomfortable around them and stayed clear in the casually ignorant and cruel way that children have. In my hometown Shug is the familiar version of the first name Hugh and Shuggie is the affectionate diminutive.
This debut novel by Douglas Stuart is set in the poorer parts of Glasgow in the 1980s. Heavy industry was no longer the lifeblood of the area and the coal mines were being shut down because the cost-revenue ratio had turned upside down. Unemployment reached record numbers, discontent was high and the high latitude predilection for alcoholism ran rampant. This transition away from a traditional economy was inevitable but incredibly painful for those who could not adjust in an impossibly short time. Glasgow lost its shipbuilding and steel industries and nearby coal pits in a few short years. It took decades for the city to recover and reinvent itself.
Shuggie was shunned by his ne’er-do-well father and people of all ages in his neighborhood because there was something “not right” about him. He was also abandoned by his siblings, who could only survive by leaving. From a very young age, Shuggie was responsible for his alcoholic mother, Agnes, who was obsessed with mourning and trying to recapture the beauty of her youth and the happiness she thought it brought her. Her vanity and insecurity were the despair of her hardworking, strait-laced parents, and both attracted and then drove away the men who made her problems worse. She was never able to understand the superficiality of her concerns or recognize the havoc she caused in the lives of her defenseless children.
Shuggie had to be persistent and resourceful just to get enough food to scrape by on a mostly empty stomach and keep the lights on. He managed to do all of that while attending school intermittently and eventually made a friend he supported through many of the same struggles he faced himself.
There is no apparent rhyme or reason to explain why some members of any family succumb to addiction. Although this book is set in a big city, it highlights problems found everywhere, including isolated rural communities. Addiction cannot be explained by good parents or bad, by a lack of boundaries or by harsh discipline. It manifests itself in many “normal” families to the sorrow and puzzlement of all the relatives. Alcoholism was quite prevalent in the maternal side of my large, extended family. I am not only familiar with the parts of the city described in the book but also with some of the characters. The children suffer most of all, and it takes an extremely strong individual to survive, never mind thrive, in a home ravaged by a parent’s addiction. Agnes is real and she is in every community, but so is Shuggie, though in smaller numbers.
Since it was published, the book has been the subject of heated discussion in the Scottish social media groups I have joined. Some of us are expats and some still live in our native land. Some folks refused to finish reading it because they found it too depressing, some people denied that it bore any resemblance to the Glasgow they prefer to remember, and some of us were spellbound all the way through. I recognized areas of the city and street names and I could picture the places the various characters lived and visited.
“Shuggie Bain” is not a comfortable book because Shuggie was an uncomfortable child in an uncomfortable world. He earned my admiration and respect by never giving up on himself, never becoming bitter or angry, and by radiating hope all through his young life in circumstances that would have felled many adults. The overwhelming feeling that has stayed with me since I turned the last page is one of peace and hope. Shuggie will be all right because he is a strong person and a good one who takes the time and effort to care about others in the midst of his own struggles. I would be proud to call him my friend.
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