Sharyn McCrumb,
She Walks These Hills
(Signet, 1995)

Sharyn McCrumb has more than proven her talent in her Elizabeth MacPherson mystery series centered on a spunky and intelligent forensic anthropologist who just happens to be a Celtophile. And her all-too-short series starring SF writer Jay Omega is pure satirical brilliance. But with the Ballad series, she exceeds even her own highest standards. Each novel is named for a folk song whose title or subject is appropriate for the plot line of the book. The stories are all set in Hamlin, Tenn., a small East Tennessee mountain town populated by typical small-town East Tennesseans. Do not read typical as stereotypical however; Sharyn gives a life and depth to her characters, a dignity that is all-too-often denied the fictional denizens of small Southern towns.

In She Walks These Hills, the many lives and one afterlife of many not-so-simple Southern folk are woven together in abstract and often seemingly conflicting patterns of complexity that keep the reader ever on edge and looking into shadowy corners for the sources of unexplained noises and peripheral movements. It is a story of in-betweens and homecomings: old Hiram "Harm" Sorley who is caught forever in 1967, before the crime he may or may not have been guilty of, but of which he was convicted, who has escaped from the correctional center and is trying to get to a home and family that no longer are where he left them; Charlotte Pentland, scientist, who is caught between her present love of the geological history of her Appalachian home and her flight away from her own past and her struggle to come to terms with her father Harm; Jeremy Cobb, historian and dreamer, lost on the Appalachian Trail while attempting to follow the path of Katie Wyler and having to balance his vision with reality; and the spirit of Katie Wyler who has been fleeing the Shawnee and coming home for centuries. Add regulars Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, who really doesn't want to catch old Harm; Nora Bonesteel, who has the Sight and sees Katie in the autumn "when the air is crisp, and the light is slanted, and the birds are still"; and Martha Ayers, full-time dispatcher and acting deputy who wants to keep the job and needs to prove her worth by catching Harm, wandering fugitive and unknowing folk hero. Together with other colorful and often quirky characters, a quilt of incredible complexity and eerie beauty takes form under the skillful hand of the author.

Sharyn McCrumb's love of her Appalachian home and its lore and mysteries is evident in all of her books, but truly shines in the Ballad series. She depicts with loving, but honest care the lifestyles inherent to the region, avoiding both the syrupy platitudes and placating condescension that are the usual pitfalls of such novels. The folk beliefs and superstitions are alive and viable in her mountains and not just queer folk trivia found in text books. While each book in the series is a treat unto itself, this one in particular is a shining star in McCrumb's crown.

[ by Debbie Gayle Rose ]



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