Country of Under

Mason Jar Press, pubished April 9, 2024

Country of Under tells the becoming stories of two unforgettable characters: Pilar Reinfeld, raised by her undocumented father, a descendent of Bolivian Mennonites, in a Mexican-American community; and Carlos/Carla/Río Gomez, a gender fluid DREAMer raised by their grandmother in the same Texican bordertown—two intelligent, misfit teenagers carving out their place in the world.

Pilar, who is passionate and empathetic but painfully shy and withdrawn, and Río, who is bold and charming, become friends in high school in 2002. They become one another's family of choice. An act of violence propels them to get scholarships to colleges in New York and LA. On opposite coasts, they move through failed romances, revelations, and transformations; nunneries and drag cabarets; asylum trials and alternative medicine; subterranean explorations and Trans Latine marches; and various assaults on, losses of, and re-creations of self. Even as their lives diverge, parallels emerge in their search for family, identity, freedom, artistic expression, and meaning. They become different people and remain true to each other.

A tragedy calls them back to the Rio Grande Valley, back to each other—their lives changed but still bound. Still mourning, Pilar returns to New York City with Río. She struggles to find a way forward and they drift apart. When Pilar's decision to engage in a dangerous artivist act finally threatens to tear them apart, they struggle to do what they have done in their best moments: see the beauty in each other, even when the world does not. Country of Under is about the unending work of transcending borders to bear witness to the wild possibility within all of us.

Runner-up for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Country of Under encompasses politicized subjects including the experiences of undocuqueer people, DREAMers, and asylees. But it is foremost a beautiful, compelling, and intimate portrait of the transformative power of friendship. Vivid, immersive depictions of Pilar and Río's journeys blur the line between life and art, challenging readers to reject false dichotomies—between male and female, contemplation and engagement, existentialism and religion, and art and activism—and inhabit the spaces between them.

In choosing Country of Under as the winner of the 1729 Book Prize, Diane Zinna, author of The All-Night Sun, wrote, “This luminous novel of big heart and span is a wonder. I am changed for having read it. The story has become part of my soul.”

Helen Benedict, author of The Good Deed and Wolf Season wrote, "Brooke Shaffner's Country of Under is a novel about the pain and wonder of being between identities. Between male and female. Citizen and immigrant. Fulfilled and empty. Outsider and insider. A novel of our time, told with deep compassion and striking beauty."

Honor Moore, author of Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury and the forthcoming memoir A Termination, wrote: “Infused with actualizing hope, Country of Under is the intertwining coming of age story of two young people who journey ‘a vein of silver... tunnels of pale blue’ to find each other anew in sanctuary and community. With this wildly imagined and visionary novel, Brooke Shaffner becomes the mythmaker of a generation.”

Barbara Fischkin, author of Muddy Cup: A Dominican Family Comes of Age in a New America, wrote: "At its core, Country of Under is about time: The time it takes to understand oneself, others, the family you have--and the family you make. And, the time it takes to develop the patience to wait, as self-revelation unfolds."