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June 2022 Reviews

June 2022 Reviews


Eerie Appalachia by Mark Muncy and Kari Schultz. Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2022. 139 pages, illustrated with black-and-white photos on many pages. Trade paperback.

About forty short tales of inexplicable incidents form this book, almost all centered in Southern Appalachia except that a few from places like Quebec, New Jersey and Florida somehow make it in. Upbeat writing and fascinating stories will thoroughly engage monster-loving readers.  You may already know about Mothman, but do you know about the Flatwoods Monster, the Rat Man, or Bench Leg?

Unconquerable: The Story of John Ross, Chief of the Cherokees, 1828-1866 by John M. Oskison. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2022. 276 pages, edited with an introduction by Lionel Larre and with an Index, References, Notes, and Authorities. Trade paperback.

Cherokee scholars tend to divide into two camps that mirror the sentiment of others, both native and white, concerned about Cherokee history. They are the Ross camp and the Ridge camp. John Ross was Principal Chief from 1828 until 1866. At first, he opposed the removal of his people from the Southern Appalachians to Oklahoma, but he later actually contracted to take a group of his people west. John Ridge at first was compliant, even signing a removal treaty, but later he opposed removal. He was educated at a white private school in Connecticut and married the headmaster’s daughter which led to the school being shut down. John Ridge was among the rivals to John Ross that were assassinated after they all moved to Oklahoma. The author, John M. Oskison (1874-1947), wrote this book in the 1930s. He was born in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and was the son of a part-Cherokee mother and a white father. I have not been able to determine whether he had a tribal number or not. He graduated from Stanford in 1898, and they claim him as their first native graduate. He started graduate work at Harvard, but dropped out and became a writer. He published four novels and biographies of Sam Houston and Tecumseh. He also was a co-editor of the Federal Writer’s Project’s state guide to Oklahoma. The editor, Lionel Larre, is President of Bordeaux Montaigne University in France and edited a previous Oskison book.

West Virginia Off the Beaten Path, Ninth Edition by Su Clauson-Wicker. Essex, Connecticut: Globe Pequot/Rowman & Littlefield, 2022. 218 pages with an Index, Foreword by former U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller, and maps. Trade paperback.

This guide is divided into eight chapters, ranging from forty to fourteen pages, each representing eight regions of West Virginia. The longer chapters are divided into as many as five areas, some designated by the name of a city or by geographical features. Boxes feature trivia, events, best attractions, and other incidentals. The restaurants featured tend to be locally owned and operated. Overall, this book tends to be expansive in what it covers, including well-known sites as well as a few that are off the beaten path. It is brief enough that it is easy to read all about any area to be visited and to get some good suggestions as to what to seek out given your interests.

The WVU Coed Murders: Who Killed Mared and Karen? by Geoffrey C. Fuller and S. James McLaughlin. Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2021. 410 pages with an Index, a Reader’s Guide, and black-and-white photos. Trade paperback.

On January 18, 1970, two white West Virginia University freshmen, Mared Ellen Malarik and Karen Lynn Farrell were last seen entering a car that has stopped to pick them up while they were hitchhiking back to their dorm after going to the movies in downtown Morgantown. Local authorities assumed they were runaways. In the months that followed Mared’s purse was found alongside a rural road and then some eyeglasses. The combination of a reward offered and the beginning of a police investigation dampened the runaway theory. Then, on April 16th, their headless bodies were found in makeshift graves ten miles south of Morgantown. Suspects were numerous. Many young men had picked up and scared hitchhiking coeds. Others had molested and murdered. Some speculated that hippies or a Satanic Cult were responsible. In January 1976, Eugene Clawson, then a New Jersey inmate, confessed to the murders and then recanted, but was convicted in 1977. Co-author Fuller believes the real murderer was John Brennan Crutchley while co-author McLaughlin believes it was William Bernard Hacker, Sr. “With previously unknown details, The WVU Coed Murders is a page-turning murder mystery.” – Hoppy Kercheval. Sarah McLaughlin is a podcast producer from Central West Virginia. Geoff Fuller, also from West Virginia, is a professional writer who is the author of a novel and co-author of two other true-crime non-fiction works.


The Book of Susan by Melanie K. Hutsell. Brewster, Massachusetts: Raven Fiction/Paraclet Press, 2022. 221 pages Trade paperback.

This novel is told in the voice of the protagonist, Dr. Susan Huffman, a professor married to a judge and the mother of a young son. Like the author, Melanie K. Hutsell, she is surprised to learn that she has to live with bipolar disorder. The author and the protagonist also share an explicitly Christian perspective. “In The Book of Susan, Hutsell takes the mysteries of the highs and lows of bi-polar illness and skillfully intertwines them on the page. Written from the unique perspective of Susan—the one who discovers her diagnosis—it’s a page-turner of story and yet a book to be slowly studied for the genuine wisdom it reveals.”  —Katherine James. “A riveting first-person account of a woman’s realization that she suffers from Bipolar I disorder. Hutsell’s protagonist accepts, overcomes, and reinvents her life through her newfound faith, discovered quite by accident due to the disease’s delusions. ‘God fled me on those days,’ she tells us when her illness begins to tear apart her carefully planned life. But Susan emerges transformed, and without sanctimony gives an account of the power of spiritual seeking to pick up the shattered pieces of life. Anyone who encounters a mental disorder in themselves or a loved one will be gripped by this powerful, raw, honest and intriguing voice.” —Rita Sims Quillen. The author, Melanie K. Hutsell, is a native of East Tennessee, now living in Oak Ridge. This is her second novel.

Genesis Road by Susan O’Dell Underwood. Lake Dallas, Texas: Madville Publishing, 2022. 342 pages. Trade paperback.

Those not previously aware will notice on the first page that this is a poet writing, and be grateful. Cocke County, Tennessee, is real, but the characters and a road there called Genesis are fiction. That is the perfect name for the road where Glenna Daniels lived at the foot of English Mountain (real) until she was ten and her home burned down. That disaster was the genesis of Glenna’s distrust of her father, Glen, and the source of her will to survive and the beginning of the reader’s wonder of what else will emerge in the life of this compelling protagonist. The story begins when Glenna is thirty-six with a dramatic scene that encapsulates a miscarriage, divorce, and her father’s death in another house fire. Never again reaching that great a crescendo, the novel still is action-packed throughout. Homeless after this fire, Glenna agrees to embark on a cross-country trip with Carey, a gay man she protected from bullies when they were kids. Their life stories are told as they converse on the trip and contemplate indigenous cultures and gems of American history along the way. This novel engages the reader with its compelling plot, kaleidoscope settings, endearing characters, poetic language, and weighty themes. It leaves lots of room for reader rumination. “Glenna Daniels of Genesis Road joins a long tradition of Appalachian narrators bound to home and bound to leave. . . . The humor and warmth of intimates on the road interlaces with Glenna’s account of her past full of regret, hurt and the rare tender moments of salvation. Underwood’s compassionate novel allows us to journey with her characters into a more deeply understood sense of self and belonging.” -- Jessie van Eerden. “Underwood carves out a deeply rendered story of America that reveals the deep scars of its history even as it is also a place where we love and lose each other, searching for a definition of home” – Mike Hilbig.  Susan Underwood grew up in Bristol, Tennessee, and heads the creative writing program at Carson-Newman College, also in East Tennessee. The daughter and granddaughter of public-school teachers who also farmed, she is the author of two chapbooks and one poetry collection.

The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt. New York, Grove Press, a 2022 paperback reprint of a 2021 release. Trade paperback.

This book is the first in a series that revolves around the protagonist, Mick Hardin. As this novel begins, he is in the Army, but on leave back home in Eastern Kentucky, and his wife is fixing to have a baby, but their relationship is becoming difficult. His sister, the new sheriff, convinces him to help her investigate a murder. The Killing Hills made Deep South magazine’s Summer Reading List for 2021, and positive mention in the United Kingdom as well. “Few writers today can boast of a body of work as wide-ranging and virtuosic as Offutt’s. His novels and short stories bend genres and upend expectations . . . In all of his work, Offutt combines literary artistry with narrative momentum. The Killing Hills is no exception: A taut, gripping thriller, it also draws us deep into the lives of its troubled characters with wit, compassion, and insight . . . The same knack for propulsion, characterization, and snappy dialogue that made Chris Offutt a natural for Hollywood are on ample display in The Killing Hills. The sentences and chapters are crisp and crackling, the mood and tone dark and ominous but not devoid of humor. Put simply, the man knows how to keep the pages turning . . . The result is a novel that, like fine Kentucky bourbon, goes down easy and leaves a long, lingering burn.” —Ed Tarkington. “Quite aside from being one of our finest storytellers, in his first crime novel Chris Offutt reminds us as always of how much we’ve pushed away from us—the natural world, kindness, community—and that the time will come when we reach again and it’s no longer there for the asking.” —James Sallis. “Acclaimed Kentucky writer Offutt [delivers] another fine example of what might be called holler noir . . . In place of plot convolutions, Offutt offers those of Appalachian folkways. The result is a fast-paced, satisfying read. Rural crime fiction that kicks like a mule.” —Kirkus Reviews. This is Offutt’s third novel to go with two short story collections and three memoirs as well as screen writing credits for Weeds, True Blood, and Terme. Offutt teaches at the University of Mississippi.

Shifty’s Boys by Chris Offutt. New York: Grove Press, 2022. 262 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

This is Offutt’s fourth novel to go along with two story collections and three memoirs. Offutt grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky, living in a mansion built by an early industrialist that his father, an insurance agent and author of pornography, chose for its isolation and beautiful Eastern Kentucky environs. After high school, Offutt hitch-hiked around the country taking working-class jobs and intermittently enrolling in Morehead State University near his childhood home. He graduated from the prestigious University of Iowa creative writing graduate program in 1990 and has been teaching at the University of Mississippi for several years. He puts words together masterfully, and his novels and stories are close enough to stereotypical that they engender great discussion in college classrooms in Appalachia. Shifty’s Boys is the second Mick Hardin novel after The Killing Hills published last year. “Another excellent Mick Hardin thriller set in rural eastern Kentucky… Come for the thriller, by all means; it delivers nicely. But stay for, and linger in, the marvelous incidentals and atmospherics: arguments about mall names; lore about snakes and birds and mushrooms; descriptions of a local shade-tree tinkerer’s Slinky-like version of a perpetual motion machine. Terrific characters; taut suspense. Another winner from Offutt.” —Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review). “This is country noir at its most powerful, combining cracking action with crystalline portraits of rough-hewn but savvy characters tragically forced to become "retribution killers" to stop yet another cycle of violence.” —Bill Ott, Booklist (Starred Review). “Shifty’s Boys is a tale of vengeance that asks difficult questions about the nature and value of honor, every line delivered with the relentless efficiency of a wolf stripping meat from a bone. In Mick Hardin, Chris Offutt has created a complex, brooding hero, a man whose moral code was hewn from Kentucky hill-country rock. As his world turns darker and dirtier by the minute, once the brutal work is done, we are left with only a few words. More Mick, please.”—Christopher J. Yates.


In the Backhoe’s Shadow by Thomas Alan Holmes. Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Iris Press, 2022. 91 pages with notes. Trade paperback.

The title’s object of a preposition, the backhoe’s shadow, is mentioned in the opening poem, entitled, “Jones Valley.”  In this poem, this shadow is an object that serves as a symbol of the transition from a generation close to nature to a generation dependent upon machines.  In the shadow of the backhoe, workers find shade, unlike previous generations who found shade under a walnut tree that was broken by wind only to give way to a cedar whose shade in meager. Those who experienced both generations, the poet relates, are “too past loss to grieve.” The backhoe, the poem’s words make clear, has been digging a grave in a family cemetery. What is being buried is not just a person, but an era, deserted by the poet’s family and neighbors who no longer farm here. “The poems in this fine collection are by turns plainspoken, meticulous, bereft, and at times, outrageously funny. Such a combination is rich and inviting. . . This is a book of honesty and affection and hard-won intelligence. One reads it and is transported and more firmly planted at once-exactly what we seek from poetry.” --Maurice Manning. “In the Backhoe's Shadow celebrates the bonds of family in a time of rapid change. The poems display extraordinarily precise, photographic details of work and memory, childhood games and pets, sad country songs. Some are poems of dailiness and humor, and the legacy of a certain time and place. Holmes is a gifted storyteller of the struggle with contemporary uncertainties, of deep kinship, of love.” --Robert Morgan. Thomas Alan Holmes teaches at East Tennessee State University and is the co-editor of three scholarly books.