“The Ballad of Laurel Springs” by Janet Beard is historical fiction that begins in the present and gives us context for the ballads that are repeated through each woman’s tale — for this is a story that runs for over century, told about and by women all related by blood or circumstance. Each woman shares her story, some taking place in a year, some over many years, in first person narrative. At times, it almost feels like they are speaking directly to us. Pearl’s first sentence to us is, “I don’t believe in witches…Seems to me folks just like to blame their troubles on someone. If your cow stops giving milk, it’s probably sick, and if your horse up and dies, it’s probably gotten old. It’s not a witch’s fault—just bad luck.” That attitude changes horrifically later in her story.
During the difficult times after Pearl’s sister, Polly, is killed, she feels sorry for Polly’s best friend, Violet. Violet becomes the schoolteacher in the one room schoolhouse that Pearl’s children attend. Two women come from Atlanta and are set on building a real school in Tates Valley for the children. They want to help the people in this part of Appalachia, teach them crafts and hygiene and give the children a proper education. But when Pearl spies on Violet in a secluded place and sees her in a passionate embrace with one of the women from Atlanta, Pearl decides that Violet is not a good person. And when Pearl’s last baby dies during childbirth with one of the ladies from Atlanta attending and Violet taking the baby right after the birth, Pearl decides that Violet is a witch. Pearl tells us about one time she ventured to Knoxville for the first time for her daughter’s wedding and was overwhelmed by the buildings and the bustle. Pearl and her daughter had gone to buy Pearl a new hat at a department store, and Pearl saw Violet at the register. Violet gave her a small smile that Pearl decided was a witch-smile, and they left without buying the hat. Pearl misses Tates Valley and she says, “I know everyone there, and I know how things work. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but it’s a good place. Folks may not have much, but they look out for one another. That’s how it’s always been.” But later, in another twist, we learn through her son’s eyes that her loving, kind husband was really a monster.
Each woman’s story is connected to other stories by strands that at times we miss, as they are almost buried in the narrative. It’s later that we read something and think, “Wasn’t there something about that before?” Sometimes the connections are more apparent. We know that Miriam, who married Pearl’s son Jake, grew up in a lovely house in Douglasville. She continued to live there when Jake disappeared for years after the war. He was presumed dead until he reappeared after his father’s death. Miriam’s father was a prominent lawyer, and the house was distinguished by beautiful carved wood trim. We don’t really think about that until later, when Frieda is narrating, and she recounts a conversation with her father about the carpenter who did that, Silas King, her grandfather. Jake tells Frieda that “There weren’t a finer carpenter in all of Tennessee. Everyone knew it. Silas King was respected in Douglasville, but things were differnt up here in Tates Valley. Folks couldn’t afford fancy carpentry, and they resented a colored man making good money from his skill.” And he relates a story that explains why he disappeared for eight years, essentially because of his hatred of his father and what he stood for.
The stories are also connected by the old ballads, the “murder ballads,” as they are called. They mostly end with a woman getting killed by a man she loved. While the ballads have been passed down through generations and generations, it’s purely coincidence that one of them features Polly and Willie, and it was Will who killed Pearl’s sister Polly. Yet that theme, violence related to romance, runs through this generational story. And while there is misogyny—cleverly we see one of the women, Carrie, wrote an essay titled “The Same Old Song: Misogyny in Traditional Murder Ballads and Contemporary Horror Films,” we also see woman-on-woman hate. What we see, generation after generation, woman after woman, is the way women can destroy lives. One of the women who venture into the Appalachia mountains to “better” the folks there collects old ballads, She comments, “Americans have made a habit of memorializing young girls’ murders in songs that are a dime a dozen. ‘Omie Wise,’ ‘Pearl Bryan,’ your ‘Pretty Polly.'”
Any woman who didn’t comply with the norm—married young with children—was often suspected of evil, of being a witch. Beard also, like a master puppeteer, manipulates some strings that appear again and again. The original Will Reid, who killed Polly, escaped but was imprisoned when he killed his wife later. His son, Charlie, was sent back to Tates Valley and raised by relatives as one of their own sons. He and his progeny feature in the lives of the women we meet. Beard does not prettify these women. They lie about being raped, and in one case it leads to the death of the not-rapist. They have relationships that end with the death of the lover, the male lover. In fact, Beard shows us women who are the center of the violence as they permissively allow it to happen or act in a manner that causes the violence. There are repeating threads between the descendants of Will Reid and the descendants of Pearl, Polly’s sister. Some are apparent, others are broadly hinted at. It was only when I reread the first chapter that I realized one of the ironies Beard lays on us regards Grace, whose 2019 story we read first. After her story, the next chapter goes back to 1907, when Pearl narrates. Then the story moves forward in chronological time returning to the present, and then, finally, back to the original Polly in 1891. It’s a bit confusing, but it works.
And throughout, the ballads are sung, the ones about Pretty Polly and others, and in some ways, music and the lilt of the fiddle tie this story to the traditional ballads and music that have shaped a huge part of our American history — often, songs and ballads based on real events, and sometimes, in a cruel twist, real events mirroring a ballad already in existence.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.