From the internationally bestselling author of The Atomic City Girls, a provocative novel set in eastern Tennessee that “explores the legacies—of passion and violence, music and faith—that haunt one family across the generations” (Jillian Medoff, author of This Could Hurt).
Ten-year-old Grace is in search of a subject for her fifth-grade history project when she learns that her four times-great grandfather once stabbed his lover to death. His grisly act was memorialized in a murder ballad, her aunt tells her, so it must be true. But the lessons of that revelation—to be careful of men and desire—are not just Grace’s to learn. Her family’s tangled past is part of a dark legacy in which the lives of generations of women are affected by the violence immortalized in folksongs like “Knoxville Girl” and “Pretty Polly” reminding them always to know their place—or risk the wages of sin.
Janet Beard’s stirring novel, informed by her love of these haunting ballads, vividly imagines these women, defined by the secrets they keep, the surprises they uncover, and the lurking sense of menace that follows them throughout their lives even as they try to make a safe place in the world for themselves. “This inspired story of Appalachian folklore” (Publishers Weekly) will move and rouse you.
Beard follows The Atomic City Girls with an intriguing multigenerational saga of a family steeped in the old-time songs and stories of southern Appalachia. The novel, which traces the lives of nine female relatives over generations in the mountains of Tennessee, unfolds through linked chapters titled after ballads that touch on their lives, among them "Little Sparrow" and "The Wayfaring Stranger." It starts with Grace Caton, age 10 in 2019, who writes a school project about an ancestor who killed somebody long ago at Laurel Springs, made infamous, says her family, by the murder ballad "Pretty Polly." Then the story moves back to 1907 with her ancestor Pearl Whaley, a mountain woman who believes her long-dead sister Polly haunts the spot in the mountains where she was murdered. Pearl is visited in the remote village by a songcatcher, who records the ballads and folk songs she sings. Subsequent decades follow with more ghost stories from Pearl's relatives, tinged with regret and loss, informed by the timeless lyricism of the songs, and culminating with a poignant revelation about Grace's immediate family. This inspired story of Appalachian folklore will move readers. Agent: Rayhane Sanders, Massie & McQuilken.