It’s the middle of the Great Depression, and while the country is falling to pieces, the people who live in the forest areas of North Carolina have it better than many. The laborers work the trees to harvest the sap necessary to make turpentine, the resin that gave North Carolina the nickname the Tarheel State. Author Donna Everhart paints a clear picture of life in the 1930s’ turpentine camps in The Saints of Swallow Hill.
Rae Lynn Cobb hasn’t had the easiest of lives. She grew up in an orphanage and was never adopted. Still, she and her husband Warren have a small turpentine farm in North Carolina, and they make a living. That is, until Warren critically injures himself because of carelessness. Despite Rae Lynn’s desperate attempts to save him, Warren dies, leaving her not only homeless, but in danger of being arrested for murder.
In an effort to save herself, she cuts her hair and dons her husband’s overalls and flannel shirt. She drives Warren’s truck away from her home into Georgia, and keeps driving until she feels safe. Disguised as a man, she finds a job as a laborer at Swallow Hill, a turpentine farm in Georgia, herself Ray.
Though the camp is run by a decent enough fellow, her supervisor is mean and dangerously bitter about being forced to hire someone he considers a small weakling named Ray. Otis Riddle instills terror in all his employees, except for another new employee named Delwood Reese. Reese is escaping his own struggles, but is a strong and an independent thinker who can see through Otis’ evil behavior. He takes Ray under his wing.
Reese, Ray, and Otis’ abused wife Cornelia eventually learn that Ray is not a young boy, but is a woman. The three band together for support and friendship, and eventually make plans to get out of the camp and make it on their own.
I felt the story dragged a bit, but the characters were colorful and interesting. I learned a lot about turpentine, something I had never given a lot of thought. I like learning new things from novels.
I recommend the book.