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Reflecting on McCrumb books

May 12, 2016 Leave a comment

On May 10 I attended the premiere of Sharyn McCrumb’s latest book, Prayers the Devil Answers, at the Salem Historical Museum in Salem VA. Sharyn is a great storyteller, both in person and in her writings, and I’ve enjoyed hearing her talk about how her books come into being over a long period of time. Last night’s premiere was no exception…and it gives me an excuse to revisit her work and talk about some of my favorites.2016-05-10 20.21.42

Sharyn McCrumb is an Appalachian author in every sense of the word. She’s born and bred in the region, with family roots that go way back.  Plus, she really does her homework with the books she writes, and it shows. She’s best known for the multiple stories she interweaves in her books, but she also does a great job crafting interesting, believable, and flawed characters with whom a reader is made to feel a connection. In recent years her characters increasingly have been based on historical figures, including NC Civil War Governor Zebulon Vance. She also has some recurring characters whom she’s revisited at various life stages: a collection of law enforcement officers including Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, and possessors of “the sight” Nora Bonesteel and Rattler.

I can’t yet comment on this latest book, but I’ve read many of her other books at least once, and some multiple times. Here are some of my favorites, roughly in order (though that changes).

  1. She Walks These Hills: A series of interwoven tales about a woman who escaped from Shawnee captors in 1779 and walked hundreds of miles home, a grad student who seeks to retrace her path, and an escaped convict who happens upon the same trail–in the end all coming together in an interesting way. I identify with the characters even more than many of her other books–some days I’m grad student Jeremy Lamb wandering through the woods, other days I’m Harm Sorley…and maybe even a bit of radio announcer Hank the Yank or police deputy Martha.
  2. Rosewood Casket: A story about adult children who come home to say goodbye (and, in the end, bury) their elderly father.  An interesting and emotional book–I might appreciate this book even more when it becomes more real for me.
  3. The Ballad of Tom Dooley: A more recent novel, it really shows how far she’s come in her ability to research the heck out of a topic, then tie together the things she learned in an engaging tale set in Civil War times.  It seems she really found a unique and believable angle for an assortment of characters–a diseased and godless young woman, her beautiful but lazy cousin, the apathetic and faceless husband, the idle but handsome lover.
  4. The Songcatcher: Highlighted in this book is a father-daughter relationship, where they are seeking to reunite during the father’s dying days. There are parallel stories tracing the McCourry family history and a pair of small plane crashes separated by several decades. (Note: this book is not related to the 2000 movie, except in the songcatcher theme)
  5. Ghost Riders: Another book that weaves several stories together, rich in Civil War themes. It highlights how Appalachian people–both then and now–engage with the Civil War…the anger of stolen land and food and people by both sides, and a desire to be left alone.  The book features Civil War reenactors, a recurring character named Rattler, NC Governor Zebulon Vance, and Appalachian newlyweds Keith and Melinda Blalock just trying to make their way in life.
  6. Foggy Mountain Breakdown: It’s hard to compare a collection of stories to a novel.  There are some stories in here that are among her best, and there are some that I skip.  Most have some phrase or paragraph that I really love, though.  And some have phrases and themes that appear in novels.  I tag them when I read them, favs include Telling the Bees, Precious Jewel, A Predatory Woman, Happiness is a Dead Poet, and the title story Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

Most of these books are categorized as in her “ballad” series, that includes many other good books as well. You may also come across her short stories from time to time; some of the best are in the Foggy Mountain Breakdown collection described above. She also wrote a set of “MacPherson mysteries” (e.g., If I Killed Him When I Met Him) that are in the classic whodunit style.  And her first books had Virginia Tech and sci-fi connections to them that may appeal to some people.

Categories: Book reviews