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A Denney for Your Thoughts – Erwin is setting for new book

By Connie Denney

She has done it again.

The “she” is New York Times bestselling author Sharyn McCrumb. What she has done is combine a great story and great writing—again. “Prayers the Devil Answers” is its title. More about that later.

There’s yet another reason this book is a real treat. The setting, the fictional town of Thorn Hollow in mountainous Tennessee, is Erwin!  Readers here “…can do the movie in their heads as they read. They’re there,” McCrumb told me. “I remember Erwin from my childhood, because my grandparents lived on Elm Street from about 1917 to the 70s when they died,” she explained.

If you are a McCrumb fan, chances are you agree that she has not only a way with words, but an appreciation for and dedication to sharing our region’s stories.  “The Ballad of Tom Dooley” and “The Ballad of Frankie Silver” are popular titles that represent research into the stories behind well-known names.  (The Parkway Playhouse, Burnsville, N.C., will feature a play adapted from her book about Silver June 4-18.)

Back to “Prayers the Devil Answers”:   Ellie Robbins (McCrumb’s fictional character), finding herself with two young sons to raise, figures serving the remainder of her deceased husband’s term as sheriff will help, only to find herself later in the position of being officially responsible for carrying out a public hanging.  (A true story from 1930s Kentucky inspired this book.)

“Ellie is really a memory of my grandmother, Essa McCourry Arwood, McCrumb says.  “She stayed a housewife, instead of becoming a sheriff, but she did indeed leave a mountain farm (in Mitchell County, N.C.) to go to Erwin when my grandfather got a job in the railroad machine shop. Their first house was by the railroad tacks, too.  Much of the pre-sheriff’s office part of the narrative is taken straight from their lives.”

As for the title, Ellie reveals its meaning as she reflects on prayers for her husband’s safety on his job. “’Prayers the devil answers,’ they used to call it up home:  when you asked for something and your wish was granted in such a way that it did you no good at all. Albert had not been killed in the line of duty, but he died all the same.”

Added elements include an artistic murderer—or, maybe, murderous artist–and the Dumb Supper. I won’t try to explain here, except to say McCrumb calls the Supper “a remnant of a folk tradition that probably has its origin in Celtic Britain….”  Intriguing?  You bet!

Having anticipated the read since learning the book would be out in May, I knew I would not be disappointed. Word-upon-word, it is a page-turner. Then, the wanting to know what happens next tugs against not quite wanting a good experience to end.  Anticipation cycles back around.

So, it was good to learn that her next book is already finished. “The Unquiet Grave,” scheduled to come out next spring, is the story of an 1897 incident in West Virginia.  A man was convicted of killing his wife based on the testimony of her ghost. “You’d think that would be unique, but it also happened in England 70 years earlier,” McCrumb says.

We’ll just have to wait to see how that works!