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The late Stuart was a homespun Kentucky sage who wrote nearly 70 books--novels, short-story collections, essays--but is known primarily for red-earth fiction about depressed Appalachia. Cradle of the Copperheads is his seminal stab at it, a crude, mawkish, occasionally powerful first novel never published in his lifetime. The deeply autobiographical hero of the book is young Shan Stringer, a romantic would-be writer from impoverished Wonder Country, Kentucky. The time is 1932, and he has been forced 'to return home to his parents' farm after failing to make his mark at Vanderbilt University. In a rather unlikely fashion, he's appointed Superintendent of the Wonder County school system by the outgoing Superintendent, a powerfully corrupt local politico named Ace Ruggles (who is going off to another plum political job to line his pockets). Naturally, the idealistic Shan soon clashes with Ace and his cronies, Bull Lightning and Viddy and Huss Snail--the cradle of copperheads--but Shan refuses to back down and in the spring challenges Ace in a new school election. The people rally to Shan's side--and he is, after struggling with himself, willing to use dirty tricks like whiskey bribes and patronage promises. He wins, only to turn the job over to a friend and go back to his writing. The novel (cut to half its original size by editor Douglass) is enthusiastic but slow-going, broken up by sinewy passages of poetry (""Strong sturdy women--makers of these homes--/Lie close beside their muscled men who plowed"") and purplish prose. Stuart told his story a good deal better in Taps for Private Tussie and The Thread That Runs So True.

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1987
Publisher: McGraw-Hill