Sharyn McCrumb has always been one of my favorite authors. Well, actually that’s not entirely accurate. She has a series featuring a forensic anthropologist named Elizabeth MacPherson that never grabbed me, though I read a couple of books in the series. But McCrumb’s ballad series books are pure poetry to my ears.
All of her books take place in the Appalachian Mountains, deep in the hollers of Tennessee. Prayers the Devil Answers is no exception. While not part of her Ballad Series, I was excited because it purportedly had the mystical element I like so much in her ballad books. The ghosts and folklore and old wives tales told from generation to generation. Banjos strumming. You know.
Prayers the Devil Answers has a good, solid, interesting storyline. It is 1934 and in an effort to survive the hard times, Ellendor and her husband, along with their two small boys, move from the country, where they live with relatives, into town where there are still jobs to be had. Her husband not only becomes employed, but soon is elected sheriff. Unfortunately, he unexpectedly dies of pneumonia, leaving Ellie with no way to care for her sons. Ellie manages to talk the town fathers into letting her finish off her husband’s term, thereby providing her with income.
And while she – and those who hired her – assumed her job would be nothing more than paperwork, a murder takes place in her county. The man is convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Unfortunately for Ellie, the law requires that it is the sheriff who must do the actual hanging. Is this something that Ellie will be able to handle?
Prayers the Devil Answers is a story of the strength of family, the tenacity of women who must provide, and the sorrow that can creep into your life when you least expect it.
Overall, I liked the book. McCrumb is a phenomenal writer. But there was something about this story that I found odd and frankly off putting. The prologue tells a detailed story about a group of mountain girls who, a few years prior to when this story takes place, conduct what’s called a Dumb Supper. According to Wikipedia, in the mountain culture of Appalachia, Dumb Suppers are secret suppers held at midnight in which the dead may come back and talk to their loved ones. In this story, however, the Dumb Supper is held to determine who among the young girls in attendance will marry. Something unexpected transpires at the Dumb Supper that causes much dismay.
And then the book begins, and for all intents and purposes, the Dumb Supper is forgotten, except for a very brief side note later in the book that has almost nothing really to do with the story. It was like the author just wanted to get this old piece of folklore into the book. It made no sense to me and seemed just odd.
Odd enough, in fact, that it contributes to my not being able to highly recommend this book. Read Sharyn McCrumb, but choose one of the novels with Nora Bonesteel as part of the story. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter would be a good place to start.