The Voice of the Mountain
Reviewed by Michael Cornett
By Sharyn McCrumb
Rating: none given
Sharyn McCrumb, usually known as a mystery writer, is best known in
fannish circles as the author of Bimbos of the Death Sun and Zombies of
the Gene Pool, two much-loved and much-hated satires of science-fiction
fandom. But her new series, called the Mountain Ballad Novels, are worthy
of a closer look by fans. In these books, McCrumb gives us a realistic
view of southern Appalachia, with generous doses of magic and mystery that
raise these novels to level of magical realism.
Unfortunately, the first book in the series, If Ever I Return, Pretty
Peggy-O, would be of little interest to fans. A straightforward novel about
death, murder, and the lingering effects of the Vietnam War, it was nominated
for a Pulitzer but contains no fantastic material. It does serve as a good
introduction to the series' setting, the town of Hamelin, Tennessee, and
the neighboring hamlet of Dark Hollow, and to some series characters: Sheriff
Spencer Arrowood, Deputy Joe LeDonne, and police dispatcher Martha Ayers,
three wonderfully drawn, almost painfully human characters.
The second book in the series, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, is
vastly superior to its predecessor and overflowing with magic. On the first
page we are introduced to Nora Bonesteel, the wise woman of the mountains.
Nora has the Sight: although she has no phone, she always has a cake in
the oven when neighbors arrive to tell her of a death in the area, opening
the door as they approach with a cup of fresh-brewed coffee for them.
Nora's sight has told her of a tragedy, as it happens. Teenaged Mark
and Maggie Underhill come home from high school play rehearsals to find
their parents and younger brother shot to death by their older brother
Josh, who then shot himself. It's a seemingly meaningless crime, as the
sheriff tries to make sense of it. He calls in Laura Bruce, the local minister's
wife (her husband is away in the Persian Gulf), to tend to the living.
But Laura has her own worries; Laura is in her late thirties and pregnant
for the first time, and her husband's absence isn't helping.
We meet more and more of the area's inhabitants. Two elderly men, childhood
companions, face the fact that one is dying of cancer, and the severely
polluted river running near the town is the likely culprit. Spencer faces
his own mortality when his musical idol, Naomi Judd, announces her retirement
due to health reasons.
Things get weirder, though. Nora finds herself being forced to work
on a "graveyard quilt", but also cannot finish it. Mark Underhill begins
a search for money he knows his father hid before he died. Laura worries
for her baby's health. A young mother dies in a trailer fire (a heartbreaking
scene). And Maggie starts to receive phone calls from her brother Josh.
The culmination of all this comes when the rains come, when floods wash
away the grief, wash away the horror, and wash away the terrible secret
that led Josh Underhill to kill half his family and himself.
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter is a truly remarkable book, the only
one of the series I can honestly say is Great. A startling, haunting, mesmerizing,
and heartbreaking parable of life and death, it is a book that should be
read by everyone, fan or not.
Next in the series is She Walks These Hills. It's the story of three
people wandering the Appalachians as autumn approaches. The first is escaped
convict Hiram "Harm" Sorley, a man in his sixties, brain-damaged from bad
liquor and brawling. He doesn't remember a thing past 1967, not even the
murder that landed him in jail. He escapes prison and rambles the mountains,
forgetting he was in jail, only thinking of getting home to his young wife
and baby daughter. Meanwhile, his remarried wife and grown daughter await
his homecoming with mixed emotions.
Second is Jeremy Cobb, graduate student backpacking the mountains, trying
to retrace the trail taken by Katie Wyler, captured by Shawnee and taken
north to Ohio after they massacred her family in 1779. The following summer,
she escaped them and made her way back home, but her journey had a tragic
end. Jeremy is in trouble himself: an inexperienced woodsman, his pack
weighs heavily on his shoulders and he seems headed for disaster.
The third person on the mountain is Katie Wyler herself, replaying her
journey as she has every autumn for two hundred years. And when these three
people meet, it's a climax not easily forgotten.
Nora Bonesteel returns, lending her presence at the Compleat Crone.
(In a memorable scene, she recalls how, as a girl, she slipped from her
time to a time in the distant past...a spooky and haunting passage.)
There are other characters involved, too, who only add tinder to the fire
that concludes the three peoples' journey. But their's more tragedy than
villainy here. As one character says, "I think people can get caught between
a rock and a hard place, and then there's no right answers without somebody
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter is a wonderful musing on the magic
of the journey, a sort of mountain version of the Odyssey. But we also
see the fading rural beauty of the mountains, as more and more development
encroaches, and the simple, dignified mountain folk are displaced by wealthy
flatlanders building vacation homes.
This theme is developed even more in the latest book in the series,
The Rosewood Casket. Elderly Randall Stargill is in a coma, slowly dying.
Returning to Hamelin are his four sons (a car salesman, a career soldier,
a budding country music star, and a penniless naturalist/historian) to
honor their father's last request: that they build a casket for him from
a cache of precious rosewood, stashed away in his barn for decades for
just that purpose. But vultures are gathering, literally and figuratively,
as a real estate developer puts in a bid on the Stargill farm while foreclosing
on the neighboring farm. And one son is embarrassed by his wife's claims
to communicate with her guardian angel: an angel that may or may not be
all in her imagination.
Meanwhile, Nora Bonesteel, once engaged to Stargill, brings to Sheriff
Arrowood a small box of bones, saying it must be buried with her former
sweetheart, and refusing to tell any more. And people on the mountain hear
a small voice crying out in the night, lost and in pain: a voice Nora says
is only the wind.
Like all the others in the series, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
is definitely tragic, as the loss of the small family farm in Appalachia
is made painfully clear. McCrumb also brings into play the tales of Daniel
Boone, contrasting his myth with the sharp realities of the modern era.
McCrumb's Appalachian novels mean a lot to me personally. My father
is from the same general area she writes about, an area of played-out coal
mines and dying businesses and breathtaking beauty; where people are decent,
honest, and hospitable, but also full of women who are one man away from
welfare, and where desperately poor people will burn their houses down
to get insurance money so they can leave town. I love and pity the mountains
all at once; they're places of great natural beauty and peace, but they're
also no place to be gay. But they're also greatly misunderstood. Too many
people have been raised on Deliverance and "The Dukes of Hazzard", and
register shock that I'm not some inbred freak when I tell them I'm from
the mountains. But when I read these novels, I know those who read them
are seeing the Appalachia that I know and love, warts and all. And as for
now, I have to make a life for myself here, and be satisfied with the small
doses of mountain magic I can get from time to time.