Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Book Review: She Walks These Hills

A Fair Trade Book

Title: She Walks These Hills

Author: Sharyn McCrumb

Author's web site: http://sharynmccrumb.com/

Date: 1994

Publisher: Penguin/Signet

ISBN: none

Length: 444 pages

Quote: “Nora had tried to help this poor wayfaring stranger, but she couldn’t make her hear…When Nora stood close to the path to try to touch her, she wouldn’t be there at all.”

Nora “sees” the ghost of Katie Wyler, kidnapped by Shawnees in 1779. Katie escaped and found her way back to the White settlement, where she was promptly murdered. Katie is, of course, the least dangerous of the people walking around a fictional Smoky Mountains community called Dark Hollow. What Sharyn McCrumb writes are, technically, murder mysteries, though fleshed out with more subplots, history, and character than most murder mysteries have; in She Walks These Hills there’s an escaped murder convict, geriatric and likable but not completely harmless, and there’s a confused young man who thought he was just about ready to hike the Appalachian Trail alone, and somewhere in the hills with them there’s a present-time murderer.

Rounding out this cast are the detective, a policewoman with things to prove to the local policemen, and Hank the Yank, a fictional radio personality who reports on the story as it develops, and the requisite number of victims, witnesses, additional suspects, potential victims, and bystanders a murder mystery needs.

It would be easy to construct a story like She Walks These Hills on stereotypes alone, if you weren’t from a small mountain town, yourself. McCrumb is. If the murderer comes close to being a stereotype, the stereotype he fits is not “hillbilly” so much as “murderer in a mystery novel,” doomed by the rules of the genre.

The more interesting part of the story is of course the sense of place. McCrumb is one of the most topophilic writers alive. When writing novels, she disclosed in Bloodroot, she always puts in a good bit of real historical research (documented in a note at the end of the book), including listening to recordings of old music. The scene of the action is a fictional place readers could almost find in real life; Hamelin, Tennessee, isn’t on the map, but that mall in Johnson City where some of the characters shop is. So is East Tennessee State University, where some of them go to school. Likewise, you can’t tune in to WHTN, where Hank the Yank reads the news, but even from my part of Virginia you can usually pick up a good clear signal from WJCW.

Some local readers enjoy this type of thing; McCrumb’s novels have never been quite as heavily marketed as John Fox’s or Adriana Trigiani’s, but they sell and resell briskly in local stores.

Of course there’ve never really been many murder mysteries in the Southern Appalachian mountains. There’ve been relatively few people; part of the sense of place in McCrumb’s novels is a sense of sparse population, a fundamental expectation that people who walk into the woods alone are normally going to be alone in the woods for as many hours, days, or weeks as they want to be. Of those people, very few have been murderers. Within that micro-minority, nearly all the murderers have been insane, usually as a result of voluntary ingestion of some chemical or other, and easy to prove guilty; the difficulty about a few serial murderers in Appalachian history, like Chief Benge and Kinnie Wagner, was not proving them guilty but doing anything about them. Murderers are not typical of any community but, to the extent that there is such a thing as a typical murderer in the mountains, stoned shooter Lakeem Scott is probably it—not very bright even when sober and far too demented to present a challenge to police detectives.

Some of the details in a McCrumb novel that sound most unlikely are, however, fact-based. The convict and too-obvious prime suspect in She Walks These Hills is called Harm. In his case, McCrumb tells us, “Harm” is a mispronunciation of “Hiram,” but in fact “Harm” was a name actually given to a few little boys in the early twentieth century, like Herman, Armand, and Ormond. And a popular song—was it the Stonemans?—actually began with “Poor Ellen Smith, how she was found, Shot through the heart, lying cold on the ground.”  
And the characters share the concerns of real mountain people. “Seems that…officers…checking out the crime scene…found some sort of crud oozing out of the ground…toxic waste…Industrial chemicals dumped in a poor man’s field…on the day Claib Maggard was murdered, Harm Sorley’s cow died…I’ll bet they find out that Claib Maggard arranged for that dumping, and pocketed the money from whatever company unloaded it,” Hank the Yank reports, in a speech unlikely to have been broadcast even on a strictly local radio station. “The people who settled this land, and loved it too much to leave it, were being pushed back then by the government interests, and the corporations, and the tourists, and the city people with their vacation homes.Thirty years hasn’t changed any of that, either. We’ve got the pollution, and condos…‘When the last moonshiner buys his radio…Something will pass that was American And all the movies will not bring it back.’”

Hank is of course a first-generation immigrant to Tennessee. That may not be as it should be, but it is as reality so often is. People who have always and only lived in the mountains are typically the ones letting their family farms and the lifestyle that goes with them die. Our great-grandparents worked hard, seldom grew rich, didn’t have a lot of things that we enjoy having. If we’ve not lived in other places, and experienced the frustrations of life in Washington or New York, California or Florida, Ireland, France, or Nepal, for ourselves, many of us are prone to imagine that we want to trade the family farm for a chance to live in some place and way that sound richer and more exciting. And some of the prodigal sons and daughters of the Appalachian Mountains even do enjoy living in the places to which they go.

Many, of course, don’t. I’ve not read or carried out a formal survey, but it’s often seemed to me that a majority of the people living in small mountain towns, sometimes especially the ones whose oldfashioned accents sound as if they’d never met an outsider or watched television, have in fact lived in other parts of the world for a few years. Some of us even liked the other places where we lived; I loved Washington, and the easiest way to ease some of my neighbors out of a bad mood is to say something in the language of their favorite foreign country…but those places, however delightful to visit, were not “home.”

“Home” is, well, prickly (I live in an orchard; I’m writing this review at the end of raspberry season.) And hot and humid in summer, damp and chilly in winter, lonesome if you’re out in the woods, crowded if you’re indoors with your ever-loving family all underfoot. And where there aren’t wasps and hornets, there are flies and mosquitoes; where there aren’t black snakes, there are rattlesnakes. And as a teenager you could have sweet age-appropriate dreams about being seen with some attractive, popular person of the opposite sex, but in order for more adult fantasies not to feel icky you have to get away from home. And if you do choose to spend your time and money on radio, TV, telephones, the Internet or anything else that might seem to promise to connect your home with your friends and life somewhere else, most of the time whatever it is won’t work. And “home” is still where you know, with every part of your mind and body, that you’re meant to be. You don’t even need to shorten your time at home with moonshine.

Sharyn McCrumb’s murder mysteries probably aren’t enough to convince the young to hold on to the family farm. But they remind older readers that we’re glad if we did.

You're welcome to use that Amazon photo link to buy a brand-new first edition. That's not what I physically have for sale, nor is it what $5 per book + $5 per package, from which 10% ($1) goes to Sharyn McCrumb or the charity of her choice, will buy from the address at the very bottom of this screen. Other sellers may list random used copies of this book for less than $5 but, since the $5 per package applies to as many of McCrumb's older pocket-size novels (or other books) as we can squeeze into the box, the Fair Trade Book option may be your best deal after all...and it includes $1 per book to each living author we can locate or to that author's favorite charity.