Granny sucked her teeth, wearing the sneer she always did when forced to come down off the mountain.
Outsiders aren’t welcome on this Howl Mountain, home to moonshiners, stock-car racing and the wood witch Maybeline “Granny May” Docherty. She keeps her secrets as close as the mountain does, some darker than others. She can get rid of the troubles girls find themselves “carrying”, cure the sick, she knows the secrets of nature and some of the locals. Yet the biggest secret remains as locked up in her daughter Bonnie’s mind as she herself is, trapped in a mental institution after a violent attack.When her grandson is besotted by the snake-handling preacher’s daughter, no good can come of it. Granny knows plants and roots, makes tinctures and potions, she has knowledge that can make you reach spiritual realms, heal wounds, or kill but none of this could stop what happened to Rory’s mother. Old now, but still strong as an ox it’s hard sometimes to believe she ever knew tender love with Anson, the man who ‘made her blood sing hot.’ What happened to her world, what good was her wisdom, her love, when she couldn’t save Bonnie? Couldn’t right the wrongs?
There is a story that haunts Rory, about his mothers delicate hands and an eye, the Gaston killing and then nothing from her but silence thereafter. She, nothing but a whore’s daughter and the Gaston’s wanting her erased. With one foot in this world, and one in the other, his mother is of a nature he cannot understand. “Girl had angel in her blood,” Granny used to say. “Where she got it, I don’t know. Not from me.” Granny is grit, carved out of hard living, fierce. Rory knows many stories about the delicate nature of his mother, but it’s the story his mother can’t tell that he longs for.
This mountain knows violence, from frontiersmen and the civil war, to the mountain men and Cherokee spilling each other’s blood. The land seems to breed blood lust, and fight is vital to survival here. Rory has returned from war but is still carrying the terrible memories, and a wooden leg. He is hellbent on bootlegging but things have changed since he’s been away at war, and the Muldoons have gotten ‘tight’ with the sheriff. There is just as much danger home as there was in Korea. Younger men challenge him, and with a missing leg, being slow can be deadly in these mountains.
Bonnie’s story escapes like a sigh throughout the novel, in short chapters we come to know her and her first bloom of love. Rory is in love too, but his is like an infection. Then there is Eustace, Granny’s sometimes lover who came back from the war in France untouched, unlike her beloved Anson. Everyone is tangled up, somehow. Between dodging the law, rivaling bootleggers, and a preacher’s daughter who dangles snakes (and Rory’s heart) something rotten is going to boil over. It may well be those closest to you, the ones you trust, that you have to look out for. Secrets will raise like the dead, and there will be a reckoning.
The novel is atmospheric, the characters are so real that you can smell whiskey on their breath and the cloud of tobacco around them. It’s hard to feel tenderness and love, because they hold their affection close to their chest, just like their trust. Everything must be earned. I loved it for that very reason, they are hard because they have to be, but don’t imagine for a moment their love and loyalty isn’t as strong as the mountain they were bred from.
St. Martin’s Press