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The Voice of the Mountain
By Sharyn McCrumb

Reviewed by Michael Cornett
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 getting hurt."

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.

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