She Walks These Hills by Sharyn McCrumb
Mystery and folklore are skillfully blended in this contemporary Appalachian tale. Driving the plot are “Harm” (Hiram) Sorley, an aging prisoner suffering from recent memory loss, who receives a spiritual message to escape from prison and return home to North Carolina; history grad student Jeremy Cobb, who wants to hike the trail used by Katie Wyler in the late 1700s when she escaped from Indians who held her captive, and members of the sheriff’s department. Strong females also figure prominently, not the least of whom is Katie Wyler, dead over 200 years, whose spectral image helps several characters. Assisting Sheriff Arrowwood is his newest deputy, Martha Ayers, who’s determined to prove she can do the job. When all these folks converge beside a burning trailer home, more than one mystery is solved. McCrumb’s rich use of dialect, accompanied by both physical description of and folklore about the mountains, combine to produce an evocative, haunting story. This novel defies stereotypical mystery elements, offering instead a complete melange of character study, plot, and setting.
I loved this book. McCrumb shows us how the present echoes the past, and all the characters live’s intersect in ways I didn’t always see coming. The mystery is a tad predictable, but the story overall was wonderful, if somewhat sad. Not all journeys have a happy ending.
I loved the Appalachian setting.The mountains are a character in and of themselves. In some ways, they have changed immensely since the 1700s, tamer, but in some ways they are the same, exacting a toll on the people who live and travel there. The inhabitants have changed over the years, too. In the book, Harm is described as the last of his kind, the last of the larger-than-life Sorley clan. On the other hand, some of the people are very similar to their ancestors, making their home in a difficult, hard to reach area by choice.
The women in this story show us both the hardships of life for Appalachian women and the possiblitites. Martha is trying to better her life, but runs up against the expectations of what women should and should not do. One character, Sabrina, feels trapped in her marriage and her trailer in the hills and makes the only choice she sees, echoing Katie’s choices centuries earlier. Nora Bonesteel has lived on her mountain for ages, knows the history of the area and the people, sees it all fading away slowly and chooses to share some of it with Jeremy Cobb, a historian. I could go on, but I guess my point is that it’s the women that really made the novel special for me. I may not have liked all of them, but I did respect the choices they made.
I will definitely be reading more of McCrumb’s Ballad Novels.