THE KILLING GROUND by Mary Lee Settle
Kirkus Star

THE KILLING GROUND

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Last in Settle's richly peopled, eloquently environed West Virginia Beulah Quintet, this haunting novel again probes the tension between Family and Community--both, like the land, wasting and wasted. And again Settle puts an act of violence at the heart of it all. In 1978, ten years after leaving home (to join ""the wanderers. . . the lost people who bred us. . . but gave us a country""), writer Hannah returns to Canona, W. Va.: ""It has taken three thousand years to build this city. . . of shelters, tombs, sacred forms and places for murder."" The ""mercilessly genteel"" hostesses for Hannah's dismaying lecture are old acquaintances--the ""aging, dry and complicated girls"" who, for decades, have been aping the airs and dubious graces of strangers, the big-bucks grabbers at the coal face. But it is the jailhouse death of Hannah's brother Johnny in 1960 which is the purpose of her return: ""to find him, bless him, release him and bury him at last."" More a pariah than a prodigal, Hannah mines time's strata--on old hill roads beside ruins of mythic family homes, through a leafy childhood past, in remembered rages and rich/poor exclusions, in visits with the living and the dead. There's that spiky octogenarian Aunt Althea, sister of long-dead Lily (The Scapegoat, 1980); kind, bigoted Uncle Ephraim; and the two women whom handsome, Princeton-educated Johnny had raped, seduced, but never brought home. (Now they mourn him, hate him, believe they were loved.) Then, slowly, the story of that 1960 death emerges. Raised to rule a plantation that turned into a mere suburban acre, alcoholic, white-dinner-jacketed Johnny one night came up against another drunk: skinny Jake Carlett--one of his hill kin, slab poor, obsessed with those who ""act high and mighty. . . never look up to see whar they come from. . . I wanted someone to notice me."" And Hannah weaves through the splintered-family themes that exploded in the image of a white dinner-jacket and a fist: the corrosion of country people who acquire their oppressors' plastic values; the placid insularities that breed dangerous ""feral twins""; the waste of stripped land. Yet, at Aunt Althea's 1980 funeral, family remnants will meet: ""Land hungry, frightened, blindly running, dragging pride as a weapon and a disguise, we met at last"". . . as it was in the beginning, when a 17th-century ancestor refused to doff a hat, displaying the clan's congenital fury against ""things as they are."" An important, exciting book--with Settle's tribal drama yielding up clues to America's Janus-faced identity, its loss and its hope.

Pub Date: June 14th, 1982
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux