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Kentucky by Heart: Construction worker Shaun Neal’s 27-year odyssey pays off with ‘Mama’s Song’

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Construction worker Shaun Neal’s odyssey in search of completing his first book, a novel called Mama’s Song, ended successfully a few years ago after nearly three decades in process. He feels both elated and relieved.

“It started in 1990, one year after my wife and I got married. I finished in 2017,” said the Nicholasville resident. “My wife . . . she is the one who never let me give up.”

Shaun Neal, with his wife, Lisa (Photo provided)

No one would have blamed him if he had. He knew he had some writing talent, because as an English major at the University of Kentucky in the 1980s and with the support of Gurney Norman, he won a prestigious writing award, The Dantzler Award for Fiction, for a story he penned called The Rebels. He also came under the able writing influence of noted Kentucky writer Ed McClanahan while there.

However, Shaun largely put his writing pen down until 1990, but resuming it would prove to be a struggle, regardless of his proficient wordsmithing skills.

Those years, as now, Shaun was mostly self-employed, specializing in concrete construction. And he was good at it. “No one in the state of Kentucky has put more concrete on the ground than I have. I’ve ‘done it all’ with concrete,” he said. He and Lisa also raised two boys, Stormy, now 27, and Conley, 23.

But pouring concrete, even when he had years making $90,000, was taxing on his time and spirit. “Hugely stressful,” he said. “You work fifteen to sixteen hours a day. . .(and) don’t have time to write. But the dream of this book never left me, and my wife made sure the dream of this book never left me.”

Shaun’s business failed in 2013, consequences of a bad economy and what he admitted to as “some bad decisions.” He later got back into construction, this time working for an employer, which he now calls “the biggest mistake of my life.” He left construction again, this time to finish his novel, and he’s glad he did.

Recently, he’s gotten back into construction work to pay the bills, but the author’s name “P. Shaun Neal” sits distinctively on the cover of Mama’s Song, and some type of award recognition, as in the past, would be great, but he’d be happy to see the novel be widely read. He’d be even happier to see his book, and future books he writes, to sell enough copies that he could become a full-time novelist, a way of making a living that he considers “more fulfilling” than concrete work.

For what’s it worth, I’ve reviewed and read for pleasure hundreds of Kentucky-related books for well over a decade, and I grade Mama’s Song as one of the real good works of fiction I’ve seen recently. My farm and country background as a child informs me that Shaun has captured the voice of the people in a small, rural community hoping to support–often in a muddling way–their vulnerable friends and family members. But even more, he’s brought to the fore universal struggles against fear and intimidation and the need for hope and direction—and examines the element of true courage. The author’s story is riveting, and with compelling characters; it ends with a bombshell, nurtured along to that point with a mix of harshness and innocence.

Shaun Neal (Photo provided)

Mama’s Song is a coming-of-age story about 13-year-old Colby Grayson, with the setting in 1949 Rowan County, in eastern Kentucky. The youngster owns the near-impossible task of helping his family survive the untimely death of his father, Vernon. Colby is in a hard predicament, but this small segment of Appalachia has already demonstrated that “hardship was more than tolerated, where it was expected and accepted.”

The community reaches out to the boy and his family, both overtly and stealthily. And Colby, precociously focused on his mission, both learns from and unwittingly teaches those who compassionately invest themselves in him.

If you’re looking for a dose of unabashed, cheap sentimentality, don’t look here. The heartstrings that might be pulled come from connections to characters who are real to most of us, not contrived. In Shaun’s own words, “It’s the story given me.”

Kentucky-based authors Joe Anthony and David Miller, too, are impressed by the gravity of Shaun’s work. Anthony notes that in Mama’s Song, “young Colby learns the difference between self-reliance and isolation, between his father’s solitary strength and his mother’s collapsing stoicism.” Miller says Shaun “conjures a large cast of fully-realized characters, damaged and humane and true to life, set down in a time and place where kinship and a jagged faith in the Lord and in the next harvest mean everything.”

To pick up a copy of Mama’s Song, visit Joseph-Beth Booksellers, in Lexington, Amazon.com, or email Shaun at pshaun6389@gmail.com. I heartily recommend the novel as a book discussion group choice!

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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One Comment

  1. Keven Moore says:

    Great Article Steve!!!!

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