Sharyn McCrumb’s Appalachia in fiction

By Melissa Martin

Being born and raised in Appalachia Ohio, I enjoy reading books about people and place. It takes me back to the holler in rural Scioto County.

The Ballad novels are a series of award-winning Southern/Appalachian novels set in the North Carolina/Tennessee Mountains. These books weave together the legends, natural wonders and contemporary issues of Appalachia. Each story is built around a theme, intended to express an overall idea, and each one centers on an event or era in North Carolina history. The following are two of my favorite books from this award winning author.

Book Review: The Redwood Casket

A fictional novel, The Redwood Casket, by Sharyn McCrumb (2013, first published 1996) is set in Appalachia Tennessee. Silence and secrets haunt two families and the Appalachian region.

The following excerpts are from McCrumb’s website:

Randall Stargill’s four sons have gathered at their mountain farm to build a coffin for their dying father. His passing causes a dilemma for his sons, who must come to terms with their dysfunctional family, and also decide what to do with the farm, which has been Stargill land since 1790. Only Clayt, the youngest, a naturalist and Daniel Boone Re-enactor, who loves the land like a latter-day pioneer, wants to save the farm from a real estate developer bent on despoiling the mountain.

For Appalachian wise woman Nora Bonesteel, Randall’s sweetheart of long ago, his imminent death poses another problem: the small box that must be buried with Randall, as she tells his family.

But land is more than a place to the people of the Southern mountains—land is who they are; as much blood kin as the folks in the family cemetery. Their Celtic forebears were willing to die for the land, as were the Cherokees who came before the settlers. Now the settlers’ descendants must lose the land — but, as always, someone will die in the process.

The novel is written in a series of flashbacks and present sequences. This makes it historical and interesting. Themes: struggles between siblings, the rich and the poor, the traditional and the modern, and industrialization and environmentalism; the passing of the family farm and cultural issues and changes. Other connecting themes included: war, crooked politicians, taxes, marriage, leaving to find jobs, and death. The author weaves the past and present together. The other story included is about Daniel Boone and Nancy Ward. Myriad characters made it difficult for some to be portrayed in-dept. And multiple side stories may confuse the reader at times.

Book Review: She Walks These Hills

A novel about journeys: an elderly escaped convict and the ghost of a pioneer woman, trying to find their way back to a place that no longer exists. The foundation McCrumb’s novel is based on the legend of Katie Wyler, an 18th-century settler, captured and held by the Shawnee until she escaped and searched for her own people.

Five mysteries arise with five characters with secrets: Katie, Harm, Rita, Martha, and Sabrina. The connecting theme of this book is the journeying of the characters as they head in the direction of home.

This book shifts the reader in time which makes it interesting. The history is relevant to story. I liked the pace of the story and character development and how the stories eventually weaved together. The strength of McCrumb’s books is her knowledge and devotion to Appalachia. Her description of the scenery and landscape paints a picture of nature. My goal is to read the remaining Ballad novels in the series.

“I find that the more I write, the more fascinated I become with the idea of the land as an intricate element in the lives of the mountain people, and of the past as prologue for any contemporary narrative. This connection to the land is personal as well as thematic.”—Sharyn McCrumb

By Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin, PhD., is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in Scioto County.

Melissa Martin, PhD., is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in Scioto County.