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.



Crossings, magical and otherwise

KIndle cover 200x300There’s a railroad crossing on the cover of my upcoming novella Conjure Woman’s Cat because several incidents in the book occur at a crossing and crossings are associated with magic.

The Florida Panhandle has traditionally been tied to the timber and turpentine industries. In the 1950s era when my book was set, pines, pulpwood, scraped trees with cups collecting resin for turpentine, and logging trains were common sights.

In modern times, we associate road crossings with red lights, traffic jams, hard-to-make left turns and accidents. Railroad crossings are places where drivers have to wait for trains and, by all means, stop, look and listen.

Crossings have always been associated with danger. Robberies happened there, armed men clashed there, and people got lost there.

All of this translates nicely into various forms of folk magic, including hoodoo, and in mythology. Like borders, crossroads were often considered to be uncertain places where realms, domains, countries and states of mind came together. Such places were often like oil and water in that they didn’t properly mix–“neither here nor there” folks often said. There is power at a crossroads, for good and ill.

quincunx - click on art for the Wikipedia page.
quincunx – click on art for the Wikipedia page.

In hoodoo, the crossroads is the place where one summons demons and bargains for skills they need: in my novella, a young girl goes to a crossing to learn how to sing the blues. “Crossing” also refers to wavy lines an X mark (or quincunx) placed on the ground where one harms or shames another person through “foot-track magic.”

Powders and liquids used to jinx the path where the victim is expected to walk are said to enter or contact that person through the soles of his feet. Folks who know conjure, watch where they walk and also carry mojo bags, charms and other items to ward off evil.

Today we use the term “street wise” to those who know what to watch out for in the inner city; I think we can safely say one needs to be equally aware in a rural area where a root doctor (conjure woman) lives.

Railroad cars with logs - Saint Marks, Florida, photo by Johnson, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Railroad cars with logs – Saint Marks, Florida, photo by Johnson, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Turpentine and pulpwood mean logging trains, a constant image in my book. People traveling the road into town see bulkhead flat cars at the railroad crossing heading for the paper mill. Where the tracks cross the road is also a tempting place to “lay a trick.”

I like the interplay of the magical and the real, and “crossings” (symbolic and real) offer a lot of “neither here nor there” kinds of places in a conjure story. A piney woods story wouldn’t be real without railroad crossings, bulkhead flat cars (typical for hauling wood) and turpentine stills.

I hope readers will enjoy the double meanings in the story as well the dangerous events that occur where one road (or railroad) crosses another road.

luckymojoYou can read an interesting summary of crossings in hoodoo at the extensive Lucky Mojo site.  (To Put on Curses, Jinxes, and Crossed Conditions, To Destroy Luck and Change Good Luck to Bad, For Revenge and Spiritual Antagonism).

You can read the Wikipedia overview of crossroads magic here and the post Mystery, Magic & Mayhem of the Crossroads here.

As always, I enjoy pulling the details and secrets of a place into my fiction and very much sharing the Florida world where I grew up.