A former resident of Appalachia reconsiders its unsolved “Rainbow Murders” in a genre-straddling debut that blends true crime and memoir.
Eisenberg tells two interwoven stories that span three decades in heavily forested Pocahontas County, West Virginia. The first—and by far the more interesting—story centers on the unsolved 1980 murders of two young women whose bodies turned up in a clearing after they were shot while hitchhiking to a festival known as the Rainbow Gathering. Alarming rumors quickly spread about local farmer Jacob Beard, who went to prison for the Rainbow Murders 13 years later. Then Charlie Rose and 60 Minutes II, having heard that serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin had confessed to the crimes, started poking around, and a judge granted a new trial for Beard, whom a jury found not guilty. Alleging police misconduct and malicious prosecution, Beard sued and was awarded nearly $2 million. Eisenberg learned of the murders while working for an anti-poverty program in the area after graduating from college, and she reconstructs the case with a brisk pace and a keen sensitivity to a Gordian knot of kinship and other ties that posed challenges for the police and suspects alike. The author’s compelling second story is, in effect, a memoir of her coming-of-age in Pocahontas County, involving bluegrass parties, lots of alcohol, and sex with an inapt partner. “I told him I was queer and that my most recent relationship had been with a woman,” she writes. “That’s cool, he said.” Several themes link the true-crime and memoir sections—including how we distinguish lies from the truth—and a related set piece explores the stereotypes of Appalachians as either “noble and stalwart” mountaineers or “profligate” and “amusing” hillbillies. With access to Beard and other key figures, Eisenberg avoids both perils and offers a nuanced portrait of a crime and its decadeslong effects.
A promising young author reappraises a notorious double murder—and her life.