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Spirited Tale

Not just another Civil War book


Ghost Riders may be an uncomfortable book for some people. Uncomfortable in the sense that it raises issues and questions about the Civil War many people don't like to think about. The book also delves gently into the supernatural -- which makes some people impatient as well as uncomfortable. But this is a well told, atmospheric tale that just might teach you something you didn't know about North Carolina history. Using the same technique that has worked well in other books of her "Ballad" series, author Sharyn McCrumb takes us back and forth from the present to the past. Each chapter's voice comes from the point of view of one of the main characters. In the present, we have Rattler, Nora Bonesteel and Spencer Arrowood, but the past is where the heart of this story lies. Speaking to the reader from across the years are Malinda Blalock and Zebulon B. Vance, both real people from NC's past.

Rattler, born and bred in the mountains of western North Carolina, first saw the ghost riders as a boy. Both he and Nora Bonsteel are familiar McCrumb characters and both are sensitive to the powers that haunt and shape life in the forests and the mountains. He has made friends with the Civil War re-enactors who periodically take over a mountain field near where he lives and who have somehow disturbed the ghosts.

Malinda Blalock's story is the most interesting. When her husband goes to war, enlisting in the Confederate Army despite his previous pro-Union stance, she disguises herself as his brother and joins up, too. It's easy to generalize about the Civil War (or any war). Just like in any conflict, the truth is far more complicated. Some argue today that the "War of Northern Aggression" was about states' rights. Some argue that it was totally about the issue of slavery. That war was about both those issues and more.

Nowhere was there more conflict about the war than in Appalachia. Most mountain folk just wanted to be left alone. When the able-bodied men were conscripted into the Confederate Army, it pitted neighbor against neighbor and family members against each other as they were forced to take sides. Some, like Kevin Blalock, Malinda's husband, at first went willingly to collect the cash bounty offered. Heartsick and homesick, Blalock managed to get himself a medical discharge and when Malinda revealed she was a woman, the military couldn't get rid of her fast enough. But after their return to Grandfather Mountain and his recovery, they discovered he was expected to re-enlist. Blalock then disappeared, along with a number of his neighbors, into the mountains. Eventually, he and Malinda joined up with a batch of Union soldiers but the atrocities of war drove him into becoming an outlaw.

The parallel story of Zeb Vance adds another dimension to the tale. Vance, born and raised in the mountains himself, is also opposed to the war. An ambitious young lawyer with political aspirations, he nevertheless enlists on the Southern side when the call to war comes. Hoping to rise to the rank of general, he tries to muster uncooperative farmers into the army. However, battle doesn't agree with him and he bolts from the army as soon as he gets a chance -- that chance coming in the form of being elected governor of North Carolina. Rattler and Nora Bonesteel, in the present day narratives, find they must quiet the ghosts who are drawn to the re-enactors. Meanwhile, Sheriff Spencer Arrowood searches historical records to find the last man killed in a Civil War battle, who just might be an ancestor of his.

McCrumb's folksy, but never cloying, writing style lends itself well to these tales as she creates for each character a strong voice that rings true. Nowhere more than the South does the past affect, infect, interact and influence the present. As William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Sharyn McCrumb will be at Park Road Books on August 7 at 7pm to read and sign Ghost Riders. Call 704-525-9239 for more info.

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