Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, Sharyn McCrumb's latest Ballad novel, is closer to literary fiction than any of McCrumb's previous books. It's heavier on characters, setting, and theme than it is on plot. While it indeed has a plot, the characters are the primary focus. 

Based on the title, I was expecting a courtroom drama, but that isn't what The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is. Even though the book wasn't what I expected, I enjoyed it. In 1935, four reporters arrive in Wise County to cover the trial of a pretty young schoolteacher who allegedly  murdered her father. Each character comes with his or her own emotional baggage; all four are concerned with giving their readers what they think their readers back home want and all four are haunted by their past.

Henry Journigan, a famous New York journalist, carries memories of a disastrous event in Japan; Rose Hanlon, also a New Yorker, is torn between her job and a pilot that she loves; Carl Jennings, the youngest of the group and the closest to home, needs to prove that he can handle the job; and photographer Shade Baker, who'd grown up poor. Another main character—introduced late—is 12-year-old Nora Bonesteele, the one who has The Sight and who appears as an older woman in several of McCrumb's ballad novels.  Jennings, thinking she can give insight as to whether or not Erma killed her father, invites Nora to leave her mountain home and help out at the boarding house where he is staying. 

You can read more about the novel, including a plot synopsis, on the Thomas Dunne Books website

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers. is strong on theme and gives the reader plenty to think about. What is truth? is the theme, or at least the controlling motif. Truth, it appears, is in the eye—or perhaps mind or memories—of the beholder. The main characters shape "the truth" in the image that they think their readers want.
"Nobody deals in truth," said Rose, watching the lawyers confering at the judge's bench. "Truth is what you can convince people to believe." (p. 195)

What is real?

"[T]he trial would grind its way to some anticlimactic whisper of of a verdict with no one being any the wiser about what really happened. the jury would decide the fate of the defendant, based as ever  on their best guess or their innate prejudices, but it was the task of the journalist to turn humdrum reality into a story that made sense, a story worth reading." (p.277)

What is Appalachia? is another motif. Is it the land of poverty and backwardness that the New Yorkers think, or is it an ordinary place that's remote, rugged, and beautiful?

A Washington Times book review is here; a blog review that will tell you more about the book is here.

I once heard Sharyn McCrumb define "literary fiction" as "people you don't care about not doing much, but it's beautifully written." Since I did care about the characters and they did do something, perhaps The Devil Amongst the Lawyers isn't "literary fiction" at all. But it is beautifully written.

 I recommend this book; it's an entertaining—and thought-provoking—read. And that's the truth.



Blogger CountryDew said...

Great review. I was wondering how this book would be received.

4:26 PM  

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