What I do remember is the place where I grew up, the intoxicating confluence of the Appalachians, the Smokies, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Though a transplant to western North Carolina, I think of this area as home– and no one describes it better than Sharyn McCrumb, not even Adriana Trigiani. Set in the rural landscape of eastern Tennessee, McCrumb’s Ballad series evokes the landscape, the people, and the lifestyle of the area. Beyond that, however, the series is hard to describe: The books have a crime element and a mystery, but they’re not whodunnits; they are sometimes set in the present, sometimes in the past; they are beautifully written but not usually marketed as Literary Fiction; and they have recurring characters, but each book works on its own.
The second book in the series, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, weaves together several stories. Four members of the Underhill family die in a murder/suicide, and the remaining two members are suddenly orphaned. Laura Bruce, though pregnant with her own child, wants to take in the orphans. The contemplative Sheriff Spencer Arrowood delves into the story behind the suicide and murders, and the elderly clairvoyant Nora Bonesteel observes a lot but says little, though she does predict that Laura Bruce will experience a tragedy.
Another sub-plot centers around Tavy Amis, a farmer who is dying of cancer after too many years of living near a polluted river. Though the carcinogens come from a paper mill in a neighboring state, the pollution is taking its toll on the people and the land in Tennessee. Tavy’s medical fate is sealed, but perhaps he can extract his revenge in his remaining days.
There is little in the way of strong language or sex, but be warned: in the tradition of the best Southern fiction, this is a dark book. Themes of poverty, environmental degradation, and death are explored through the lives of realistic and sympathetic characters. This is not a romanticized portrait of life in the mountains, but rather a beautiful and haunting portrait that cements McCrumb’s place as a talented observer of human lives.
Check the WRL catalog for The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter