Review: ‘The Saints of Swallow Hill,’ by Donna Everhart

This novel turned out to be an excellent medication for a person who spent the past week with the flu and probably would also make for good reading for anyone else who likes a gritty story set in a depression-era turpentine camp in Georgia. The characters, some of whom are broken, some who are mean, some with mistakes on their résumés, some who take risks to help others, and some who would be nice to have as neighbors grow and become multidimensional as the story proceeds.

The story brings readers a realistic view of a turpentine camp as many of us know it from coming of age in a world of longleaf pines and many cat-faced trees and many stories about the harsh realities of the naval stores business at its most basic level. The story is one of those where readers are likely to fear for the characters and whether or not they will make it to the end of the book.

From the Publisher

Where the Crawdads Sing meets The Four Winds as award-winning author Donna Everhart’s latest novel immerses readers in its unique setting—the turpentine camps and pine forests of the American South during the Great Depression. This captivating story of friendship, survival and three vagabonds’ intersecting lives will stay with readers long after turning the final page.

It takes courage to save yourself…

In the dense pine forests of North Carolina, turpentiners labor, hacking into tree trunks to draw out the sticky sap that gives the Tar Heel State its nickname, and hauling the resin to stills to be refined. Among them is Rae Lynn Cobb and her husband, Warren, who run a small turpentine farm together.

Though the work is hard and often dangerous, Rae Lynn, who spent her childhood in an orphanage, is thankful for it–and for her kind if careless husband. When Warren falls victim to his own negligence, Rae Lynn undertakes a desperate act of mercy. To keep herself from jail, she disguises herself as a man named “Ray” and heads to the only place she can think of that might offer anonymity–a turpentine camp in Georgia named Swallow Hill.

Swallow Hill is no easy haven. The camp is isolated and squalid, and commissary owner Otis Riddle takes out his frustrations on his browbeaten wife, Cornelia. Although Rae Lynn works tirelessly, she becomes a target for Crow, the ever-watchful woods rider who checks each laborer’s tally. Delwood Reese, who’s come to Swallow Hill hoping for his own redemption, offers “Ray” a small measure of protection and is determined to improve their conditions. As Rae Lynn forges a deeper friendship with both Del and Cornelia, she begins to envision a path out of the camp. But she will have to come to terms with her past, with all its pain and beauty, before she can open herself to a new life and seize the chance to begin again.

For those who didn’t grow up in longleaf pine country, the author’s note provides a few helpful details about the workings of the turpentine camps.

This is a captivating, well-written story.

–Malcolm