A historical novel spins a yarn of a skeptical doctor and a trio of folk healers who team up to try to save a Georgia town from a deadly disease.
North Georgia, 1822. Savannah doctor Aubrey Waycross has been invited to the remote town of Lawrenceville to provide the locals with proper medical care—and, in his mind, to dispel some of their backward superstitions, such as a ghost panther stalking the hills. But the citizens of Lawrenceville already know where to get their healing. A few miles outside of town in Hope Hollow, three sisters—Rebecca, Sarah, and Effie Winter—are renowned for their cures for everything from sneezes to rheumatism. Some regard the sisters as witches—Pastor Boatwright insists the panther is their familiar—but Waycross assumes they are merely frauds. Charlatans, of course, can still be dangerous. “What if this supposed panther…put its teeth into human flesh?” worries Waycross. “What if, in their benightedness, the afflicted went to the Winter sisters for treatment? These so-called witches might spread the contagion with some superstition about pouring out blood at a crossroads.” Yet Waycross must admit that the Winters have a knack for unexplained healings, and there does seem to be some sort of big cat in the woods. The physician can’t help but become increasingly fascinated by the sisters, whose ways are as old as the mountains. As Waycross contends with his own ether addiction, Lawrenceville is in danger of a rabies outbreak, and the doctor alone may not be enough to save it. As the pastor preaches his own brand of unscientific cures, Waycross will have to rely on these mysterious “colleagues” if he wants to save the people of Lawrenceville from a terrible fate.
Westover’s (The Old Weird South, 2012, etc.) prose is wonderfully detailed, capturing the lushness and grit of his superstition-ruled setting: “The odor was not pleasant. It smelled of too many herbs all at once, basil and rosemary mixed with an overpowering lavender, as well as the spiciness of rhododendron, the sharp tang of pine, and the musk of something decocted from a toadstool.” Readers will be intrigued right from the book’s atmospheric opening, when Waycross’ reluctant carriage driver warns him of all the dangers that haunt Lawrenceville. The story is ultimately less of a gothic fantasy than a slow-moving, slightly magical realist novel that takes as its subject the denizens of a colorful little town. The time and place—antebellum rural Georgia, equally distant from the Revolutionary and Civil wars—feel refreshingly unexplored. There are moments when the story dawdles, but the author has created such an attractive world to inhabit that its conservative pace is not much cause for concern. Westover manages to stick the landing, bringing his doctor’s unlikely investigation into miracles to a wise and affecting conclusion. Solid writing and strong characters buoy this examination of a captivating moment in American history when old beliefs encountered the new.
An enthralling, cozy tale set in an era when folklore reigned over science.