Every once in a very long time, a debut novel appears that carries such literary and emotional power that the reader loses herself utterly in its glorious, painful, mesmerizing pages. The Iron Horse by Dawn Erin is just such a book.
A full-blown heroin addict by her late teens, Dawn Erin was on a path of self-destruction that more often than not leads to death or imprisonment. But Erin not only lived to tell the fictionalized tale of her misguided youth, she tells it with the grace and insight of a truly great writer. This makes Dawn Erin one of those rarest of creatures -- someone who has not only experienced the depths of human degradation, but has the ability to turn that experience into deeply moving and intensely entertaining literature.
Erin's genre-defying autobiographical novel tells the story of protagonist Sunny Quinn. The genius of The Iron Horse lies in Sunny's agonizingly detailed transformation from a steadfast, horse-crazy New England Catholic school girl to a hardcore heroin addict who will do what ever it takes to acquire a fix to stave off the sickness of withdrawal.
The novel begins with Sunny as a young girl falling in love with the world of American Saddlebred show horses. Sunny's mother and slave-driving stepfather refuse to pay for such an expensive hobby flat out, instead choosing to "loan" young Sunny the money for riding lessons with the understanding that every penny must be paid back through her work in the family's catering business. But hardworking Sunny's natural talents on horseback are stymied by the fact that she'll never be able to wash enough dishes or muck enough stalls to truly afford this hobby of the very rich.
While Sunny works endlessly to pay back her parents, her mother and stepfather begin to profit from their business. But their growing income doesn't inspire them to assist with young Sunny's passion. And when Sunny's desire to please her domineering riding trainer Elizabeth backfires, Sunny suddenly loses the world of horses that has both sheltered and tormented her.
Part 1 of The Iron Horse reads like a love letter to the American Saddlebred, but as the first section of the book comes to an end with Sunny exiled forever from the haven of the Barn, the reader is reminded of a sentence in the novel's prologue: This is not a story about a girl who loves horses.
Without horses to give her life meaning, Sunny slogs through the endless piles of dirty pans and dishes generated by her family's business, goes to Catholic high school during the day, and works an office job in the evening for the local newspaper. This mind-numbing, and never ending cycle of work that Sunny thinks of as the "Treadmill" suddenly becomes even darker and more miserable when she begins to suffer from an undiagnosed burning in her bladder. After rounds of tests for infections, and endless unhelpful doses of antibiotics, Sunny is finally diagnosed with a chronic, incurable bladder diseased called Interstitial Cystitis. The disease makes daily life an agony and -- Sunny finds when she finally loses her virginity -- sex a torment.
When Sunny is accepted to the expensive and prestigious Emerson College, her mother rejoices, pressures Sunny to go, and hands her the enormous monthly bill for tuition. And so Sunny's seemingly endless toil continues, but now with a daily commute to college, lots of homework, and ridiculously high tuition and fees added to the grind.
And then Sunny meets Nate, a sexy British guitar player who loves the blues and whisks her to his sweet and drunken parents' trailer in a low-rent community Sunny thinks of simply as "the Park." Sunny falls hard and fast for Nate, feeling for him the all-encompassing passion of a true first love. And through him and his family, she glimpses the possibility of a gentle and kind, if tipsy family life. Nate -- who lives for pleasure and a good time and worries little about the future -- shows Sunny how to blessedly step off of the Treadmill of ceaseless work and enjoy life.
But between visits to the Park to see Nate, Sunny still struggles with her two jobs, tuition, school, and the maddening burning in her bladder caused by Interstitial Cystitis, which keeps her from being able to enjoy physical intimacy with her beloved. When Sunny inevitably starts dabbling in marijuana and cocaine with Nate, the rush dulls the physical pain a bit and blunts Sunny's awareness of the burden she shoulders in her daily life. Desperate enough to do anything to relieve her pain, it's not long before Sunny suggests to Nate that they try heroin.
The testament to Erin's writing comes when Sunny snorts her first line of heroin and, moments later, realizes that the pain that has plagued her for years has disappeared. Sunny melts into the glorious feeling the heroin brings, as she rejoices she's finally sampled the greatest painkiller known to man. And even the most sensible reader finds herself cheering Sunny on, feeling that finally, finally this loveable, long-suffering protagonist has found the relief she deserves -- even if the reader, like Sunny, knows snorting heroin cannot be a good idea and that the ecstasy and escape provided by the drug will certainly come with a cost.
From there, Sunny's slide into the shady and increasingly seedy world of heroin addiction begins. Erin's prose illuminates every step of Sunny's dark journey, allowing the reader to watch and empathize every time Sunny falls a little further from grace.
This complicated, sweeping coming-of-age novel tells the story of profound first love and addiction. From heartbreakingly wholesome, to shockingly seedy, The Iron Horse remains at its core a brilliant tale of how a spiral into depravity can be a necessary part of the path to redemption. It gives readers a new kind of heroine, one who is raw and real, and who seems to know instinctively that any hope of salvation will come, not from the man she loves, but from within herself. And it firmly positions Dawn Erin as a stunning and important new voice in fiction.
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