When Donna Everhart writes, she builds her stories around little-known or long-forgotten pieces of the South’s history. Her newest novel, The Saints of Swallow Hill, tells the alternating stories of two characters whose personal histories contain compelling incidents that lead to their paths crossing inseparably.
As in her first four novels, those characters battle environmental and economic distresses. “Saints” is set in 1932, a mere three years after the stock market crash, when the country is dealing with the Great Depression and when healing and revival are a distant dream for rural Southerners.
Twenty-eight-year-old Delwood “Del” Reese, an itinerant worker who fancies himself a ladies’ man, is caught with his boss’s wife while working on a farm. In retaliation, Del is assigned a dangerous job in a circular corrugated grain bin that most men would run from. Del survives what normally would have been a deadly incident and emerges a changed man. He takes off for Georgia, looking to find work at a turpentine camp called Swallow Hill.
At the same time, Rae Lynn Cobb, a twenty-five-year-old happily married wife, finds herself in a life-or-death situation of another kind when her kind husband, Warren, is badly injured. When Warren makes matters worse by his own hand, Rae Lynn is forced to grant his dying wish, an act which weighs heavy on her. She cuts her hair, assumes men’s work clothes, adopts the name “Ray Cobb,” and flees to Swallow Hill where she can find work as a turpentiner.
Swallow Hill operates like many turpentine camps—long workdays, segregation, sparse accommodations, camp commissaries designed to keep workers in debt—except for workers assigned to a woods rider/tally man named “Crow.” Crow is a vile overseer who finds enjoyment in others’ pain and suffering. His preferred punishment is to force a worker into “the box,” a wooden coffin-like structure into which a person barely fits. Set outdoors where the sun is strongest, Crow sets the lock and leaves the penalized worker to sweat out his fears without food or water.
Del soon has his time in the box, learning first-hand how inhumane it is, and when he discovers that “Ray Cobb” has been in the box for several days, he saves his colleague from certain death. The chain of events that follow during Rae’s recuperation create bonds that become lifelong attachments between unlikely characters.
When Everhart first mentioned this project, my initial thought was, “Turpentine? Who thinks about turpentine?” But knowing her, I was certain the project would blossom into the heart-grabbing, page turning story that it is, embedded with fascinating daily life details that bring the story to its fullest.
Where the darkest aspects of Southern life permeate her characters’ lives, Everhart never fails to find balance in strength and the brightest spots in which they flourish and succeed. Employing Southern dialogue and multilayered research, Everhart achieves a flawless sense of place and time, never taking her eye off the story or straying from the world she recreates so precisely. Everhart’s literary star power lies in her ability to find the gristle of the historic South and elevate its people with determination and dignity.
The Saints of Swallow Hill published on January 25, 2022. Donna Everhart lives and writes in North Carolina, and she is the author of four previous novels:
- The Moonshiner’s Daughter (2020)
- The Forgiving Kind (2019)
- The Road to Bittersweet (2018)
- The Education of Dixie Dupree (2016)
You can find out more about Donna on her web site.
Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with a digital ARC of this book.