Sharyn McCrumb

2004 SeasonMcCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb’s award winning novels celebrating the history and folklore of Appalachia have received scholarly acclaim and ranked on the New York Times Best-Seller lists. The author of The Songcatcher, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O, as well as many other acclaimed novels, McCrumb’s books have been named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. Her novels, studied in universities throughout the world, are translated into German, Dutch, Japanese, and Italian. She has lectured on her work at Oxford University, the University of Bonn-Germany, and at the Smithsonian Institution; taught a writers workshop for WICE in Paris, France, and served as writer-in-residence at King College in Tennessee. Honored for Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature by the Appalachian Writer’s Association in 1997, Sharyn McCrumb’s many awards include the Sherwood Anderson Short Story Award; Appalachian Writer of the Year Award in 1999 from Shepherd College; the Flora McDonald Award; Morehead State University’s Chaffin Award; and the Plattner Award from Berea College. Her work has twice received the AWA’s Best Appalachian Novel Award. In November 2003, she received the Wilma Dykeman Award for Regional Historical Literature by the East Tennessee Historical Society.

Bibliography

The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (1993)
She Walks These Hills (1995)
The Rosewood Casket (1997)
The Songcatcher (2002)
Ghost Riders (2004)

Excerpt

from Ghost Riders, a Novel By Sharyn McCrumb…

Malinda Blalock, March 1862

That night I pulled on my hunting boots and britches and Keith’s old coat, and I made my way up on the ridge to look at the stars and think. The night was clear-- still winter up on the mountain-- so that the cold air burned my insides as I walked, and I had to keep blowing on my hands to keep my fingers from going numb. Spring was coming, though. I would miss the mountain. Up there I almost felt like I could talk to Keith and make him hear me. I wasn’t too sure about God. The black sky was spangled with stars, looking like frog spawn scattered across a deep, still pond, making me wonder what laid ’em and when, but this wasn’t a time to be thinking about stars. They had been a long time up there, and they’d still be there after I had gone to dust. I thought about praying, but I didn’t have too much to say to God, either, so I set my mind to figuring out what to do about Keith Blalock, who was a fool for fighting, and might go charging off into battle and get himself killed, even if it was for the wrong army. Or else he might get het up in a political dispute in the Rebel camp and tell the soldiers what he really thought about this tomfool war, and then I reckon they’d hang him.

I couldn’t lose Keith, too. Once already I lost somebody to death, I’d not live through that again without a fight. Four years ago we had us a baby, Keith and me. We got married that June, and the young’un was born that next spring. I remember him as a red-faced bundle with eyes shut tight and fists balled up like he wanted to be a fighter like his daddy. The minute I held him, I clean forgot how mad I had been on account of it hurting so much to bring him into the world, and I just wanted to sit there and look at him from one hour to the next. But he didn’t thrive. He was awful little, and the midwife said he might have come before he ought to have. It was still cold up the mountain in late spring, so I reckon the cabin wasn’t warm enough for a tiny, frail thing like him, but we weren’t much more than young’uns ourselves, and we didn’t know what to do for him when he took sick. I just sat there by his basket, watching him thrash in his feverish sleep, and not knowing what to do. He held on to my finger with his little fist, as if I could drag him back into life, but I didn’t know how, and just before sun-up one morning, that little hand went slack and the fever went away, and my baby was gone.

Well, it was God’s will, folks said, and they told me it would have been wrong to question His ways by grieving over much for my boy, so I shut it away inside my heart, and ever after I tried not to think on it too much. Keith wasn’t nearly as tore up about it as I was, and I reckoned that men didn’t hurt as much as women did. Didn’t hurt Keith none to bring that baby into the world; didn’t hurt him over much when it left it. So I just shut up my sorrow, and I thought, “There ain’t no percentage in being a woman.” Then I resolved not to be like one any more if I could help it. I went hunting with Keith, and I wore britches and learned to shoot straight. I stalked deer and skinned rabbits, and I worked as hard as a man. Sometimes what I did made the hurting stop, and sometimes it didn’t, but the free life of men folk suited me, and was a deal more interesting than the cooking and sweeping that was a woman’s lot. I could tell Keith was happy that I was his friend as well as his wife, so we...soldiered on.

Soldiered on.

And now the war has come and the government wants Keith to go off and fight on their say-so, and I am supposed to be the little wife, a-tied to hearth and home while he’s off fighting. But I can’t go back to that, to washing floors, and sewing shirts, and waiting, and watching babies die. What is there to war as terrible as that?

Zebulon Vance – April, 1861

I was, at the age of twenty-eight, the youngest member of the 36th Congress of the United States, and a member of the minority American party, to boot, so that in the House of Representatives I had all the influence of a barking dog upon a freight train. I could see the train wreck coming, though-- by God, I could.

The talk of war grew louder with each passing day.

The Secessionists were hell-bent on derailing the Union, and though I spoke against it, and wrote against it, and did what little I could politically, I still saw the collision coming at all deliberate speed. In February, at the behest of the Virginia Legislature, twenty-one states held a Peace Convention in Washington, and after much wrangling the delegates submitted their recommendation of measures to avert war, but nobody paid them any mind, and the talk went on as before.

I still argued for reconciliation. I suppose it seems odd that the man who would have walked into a duel only months earlier would now exert all his energy toward preventing a duel between the states, but, while I did not doubt a state's right to leave the Union, I questioned the necessity of it. I couldn't see any percentage in it for the mountain people, and that's who had sent me to Congress.

In the spring of 1861, still fighting the inevitable, I had agreed to go on the stump in the mountain counties to urging the voters to oppose secession. It was close on my thirty-second birthday, and I was holding forth to a goodly crowd back home in Marshall, trying to prevail upon my constituents to see the sense of remaining in the union, and trying to keep the secessionist wildfire from spreading into the mountain territory. After all, we had few enough slaves in our territory, and import tariffs do scant harm to folks who buy little except salt and nails. The South may have had legitimate complaints against the rest of the country, but what business was it of ours?

The crowd was restive, and I knew that it would be a job convincing them. They were only listening to me because no other entertainment presented itself that afternoon. One good dog fight would have cost me half my audience. A goodly number of the listeners had pistols on their hips and the sullen expressions of men who don't like what they are hearing. They muttered among themselves at how the government was supposed to do what the people wanted instead of the other way around. But they heard me out, civilly enough, with occasional expressions of anger and excitement, where they ought to have been showing somber concern, for they knew the gravity of the situation as well as I did. Blood had been shed over slavery in Charles Town, Virginia, and John Brown hanged for it. We were all mindful of the consequences, should war come, and the ones with joyful anticipation were graven fools.

"At the very least," I said, "North Carolina could do as some have suggested in the event of war: withdraw from the north and constitute ourselves an armed neutrality. I think the border states would join in such an attitude of neutrality, and then the fight would whittle down to a boil between New England and South Carolina and such states as are mad enough to join them. I think the war might even be prevented entirely if the government would withdraw its troops from the Southern forts--"

A tow-headed boy in overalls came running out of the telegraph office across the street, shouting and waving a bit of paper as he ran. He hardly seemed to take any notice of me up on the speakers platform, but he came barreling on toward that cluster of townspeople, braying as he went. When I saw the look on the boy's face, I ceased to speak and the crowd subsided into a frozen silence.

I stood there immobile-- literally with my hand in the air, for I had been gesturing to heaven about the point in my speech-- and the boy's words carried over the heads of the crowd: "Fort Sumpter has been fired upon. Mr. Lincoln calls for volunteers to suppress the insurrection. Seventy-five thousand volunteers!"

Slowly I let my hand fall.