Southern writer McCrumb, author of a series of Appalachian ballad novels (The Ballad of Tom Dooley, 2011, etc.), puts her hand to the Revolutionary War as the Overmountain militia men of North Carolina push off the British.
In 1780, John Sevier has had little time to concern himself with the war up North. In the mountains of the Carolinas, the western frontier of the era, the fighting is with the Indians, and it is brutal and frequent. Politics between the crown and the Continental Army seem a distant worry, that is until Maj. Patrick Ferguson of the British army threatens those on the frontier: either pledge allegiance to the Tory cause or suffer the consequences. Feeling squeezed on both sides—by the Indians and the British—Sevier sets out to organize an army to defeat Ferguson. When word gets out of Ferguson’s threats, it doesn’t take much for all of the neighboring militias to join forces—in the end, over 2,000 men. But before the march, Sevier needs money and food and gunpowder for an army, and much of the novel is taken up with the organization of a battle. Meanwhile, in Ferguson’s camp, Virginia Sal, a young washerwomen, describes Ferguson and the ambivalence of those pressed to serve. Ferguson, the second son of a Scottish lord, is a wonder to all: He eats off china and has met the king; Sal thinks he may be closer to God for all his fineness. As Sevier’s men get closer to the battle (as untrained soldiers who have sworn no oath), he prays their element of surprise will decide the victor. The book is well-researched, but it too often lacks a lively voice (save for Virginia Sal) and is caught up in logistics, to the detriment of atmosphere. There is no look or feel to the story that allows the characters to breathe.
McCrumb’s novel is much like Sevier’s exploits—a slow march to an inevitable conclusion.