(reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer MAY 15, 2004)
“I don’t hold with talking to dead people, but still and all I would give anything to exchange words with her. To see her draw rein and turn around so I could look into those eyes. I’d ask her where it is they’re riding to, or maybe I’d just wish her well or ask if she’s content with this endless ride or if she wants me to try to help her. I want to say, You lived through the war, hon. It’s over. Don’t you remember?
She never stops, though. She rides on by, looking straight ahead, as if I was the ghost instead of her.”
The framing story runs like this: Civil War reinactors have come to the Appalacian Mountain home of Nora Bonesteel and Rattler, well-beloved McCrumb characters from previous novels. Rattler can feel the unrest under the very ground as the innocent weekend warriors awaken ghosts and passions that should have been long buried...and that’s where we get the title. But as I said, this is merely a framing story, one that we revisit, from time to time, a tale that creeps in along the edges and gives us a bit of a tense ghost story that builds as the narrative continues.
The main story is split into two, and tells the stories of two very different historical figures: Malinda Blalock and Zebulon Baird Vance. Their lives will intertwine in odd ways, beginning with the first chapter. When Malinda’s young husband Keith runs off to join the Confederate army, she puts aside her skirts and pride to follow him dressed as a boy and posing as Keith's younger brother. After awhile Keith tires of the army...not from lack of bravery, per se, but from sickness over the politics, and no longer sure if he believes in what he’s doing. He rolls in everything he can find until he gets a rash that will let him leave temporarily. When this happens, Malinda, known as Sam, wants to go with him, so she goes to her commander, Zebulon Vance. When she lifts her shirt she gives indisputable proof that she is a woman, and instead of punishing her and her husband, he lets them go. He will also leave soon enough to follow a career in politics, urged on by his thirst for power, for civilization and a life utterly different from the one he lived in North Carolina (a birthplace he shared with the Blalocks). The Blalocks will also continue to avoid their former simple life; when Keith becomes AWOL from the Confederate army, they have to run away...they will find ways to serve the Northern cause, and try to fight the horrible depredations the war has brought to their home.
I’ve read a lot of Sharyn McCrumb -- who can resist titles like She Walks These Hills and If I’d Killed Him When I’d Met Him? -- and because of the fact that Rattler and Bonesteel were in the book, and because of the title, I thought I was settling down to a ghost story. I’m not a reader who expects the same kind of story every time from a writer, I love it when a writer stretches out, tries new things, but I didn't expect a historical Civil War novel. Once I got into it, though, I really began to enjoy myself. Vance grew on me, and Malinda’s story, her heartbreak, her bravery, are very effectively created...I couldn't help but root for her. It also helped me really understand how awful the Civil War was and for the Appalachian people in particular...many terrible war crimes were committed, and what made it worse was that people committing them were people the victims knew. They weren’t faceless men in blue or gray, they were neighbors. We have all heard of the Hatfield's and McCoy's, a story that has since become a caricature of itself. Here we see how such a deep down bloody feud could have happened, we see the roots of it and feuds to come.
You should read this novel for Vance and Malinda’s tale. The story is extremely well done, bursting with historical detail, an excellently done portrait of the times and place. McCrumb truly loves the setting of these books, and it’s wonderful to see the Applachia, which she has lovingly immortalized for me in previous stories, in a new time period, so that I can see what it was like back then. This is fortunate, because the ghost angle, filled with clever things that really build and build upon your expectations, doesn’t quite work in the end. Still, it is a fabulously wrought historical novel.
- Amazon readers rating: from 27 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
The Elizabeth MacPherson Series:
- Sick of Shadows (1984)
- Lovely In Her Bones (1985)
- Highland Laddie Gone (1986)
- Paying the Piper (1988)
- The Windsor Knot (1990)
- Missing Susan (1991)
- MacPherson's Lament (1992)
- If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him... (1995)
- The PMS Outlaws (2000)
Omega / Farley Series:
- If I ever Return Pretty Peggy-O (1990)
- The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (1992)
- She Walks These Hills (1994)
- The Rosewood Casket (1996)
- Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Other Stories (1997)
- The Ballad of Frankie Silver (1998)
- The Songcatcher (May 2001)
- Ghost Riders (July 2003)
- The Devil Amongst the Lawyers (June 2010)
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- The official website for Sharyn McCrumb
- BookPage interview with Sharyn McCrumb
- Rambles review of The Songcatcher
- TeenReads.com review of The Songcatcher
- BookReporter.com review of Ghost Riders
- Greenman review of Ghost Riders
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About the Author:
Sharyn McCrumb graduated from the University of North Carolina and in 1985 received her MA in English from Virginia Tech. She taught journalism and Appalachian studies at Virginia Tech as well as worked for a newspaper as a reporter until 1988. In 1988 McCrumb decided to devote her time to writing novels and working the lecture circuit. Shr has been writer-in-residence at King College (Tennessee) and Shepherd College (West Virginia), and she has lectured on her work at universities and libraries throughout the United States and Europe.
McCrumb is a New York Times bestselling author whose work has been cited for "Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature." She has received the Chaffin and Plattner Awards for Southern fiction, two Best Appalachian Novel awards, and many other honors.
She lives and writes in the Virginia Blue Ridge.