In Depression-era Appalachia, a woman succeeds her late husband as sheriff in a small mountain town.
McCrumb’s latest starts on an eerie note: in a deserted mountain cabin, young women stage the ancient Halloween ritual known as the Dumb Supper. The purpose is to divine whom they will marry, but one of them, Celia, accidentally breaks the spell and, according to tradition, is cursed. Years later, Albert Robbins, recently elected sheriff of Sycamore Shoals, Tennessee, lays dying of pneumonia. His wife, Ellie, tends him and tries old remedies such as a mustard plaster, to no avail—soon she is a penniless widow with two young sons to feed. Accepting a grudging invitation to move back to Albert’s family farm, now owned by her miserly brother-in-law, would condemn Ellie and her sons to the fate of poor relations. Instead, she boldly requests that the city fathers appoint her as sheriff to serve out her husband’s term—the job is largely administrative, and she already knows how to shoot. She also has experience in facing down at least one criminal: the man next door, whom she dissuaded, at gunpoint, from further abuse of his wife. Meanwhile Celia, now a local schoolteacher, helps Lonnie Varden, an artist employed under a New Deal federal program, with historical research: he is painting a mural of the town’s frontier antecedents for the post office. As their mutual attraction grows, Celia worries that the Dumb Supper curse may be more than superstitious nonsense. How these minor characters intersect with the main plot finally becomes clear two-thirds of the way through this slow-paced narrative. Once married, Celia must quit teaching, while Lonnie gives up painting to work in the sawmill, with disastrous results. Suffice it to say that in addition to being a highly unprecedented female sheriff in the region, Ellie is unexpectedly faced with another unheard-of role: hangwoman.
This ambling novel is strong on period detail and atmosphere but repetitious and overforeshadowed.