We don’t normally review novellas but we’ve got a couple of them this holiday season. Bestselling and award-winning author Sharon McCrumb is one of my favorite authors. I love all of her books but her Ballad series novels featuring old Appalachian Mountain tales are very special to me. I grew up there and she beautifully captures the stories behind the ballads I remember being sung during lazy summer front porch gatherings.
Nora Bonesteel, a Tennessee mountain woman with the Sight, figures prominently in some of those stories so I couldn’t pass up Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past when I saw it. Although I’ve read the other Ballad novels, I believe you can pick this up as a stand-alone read and be just fine because there’s enough back story included. Ghosts and wily old mountain men put a decidedly different spin on Christmas. Sound interesting?
The women in Nora Bonesteel’s family have inherited the Sight as far back as she knows; all the way back to the Scottish Highlands the family left to come to the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. Sometimes it skips a generation but it always shows up. Nora has known she had it since she was about five years old, when she saw a coffin and candles in the church before anyone knew a woman was going to die. It’s both a gift and a curse. Thankfully her grandmother guided her in the ethics of how she should deal with it so she can bear it and others aren’t harmed by it. After all, folks don’t truly want to know when they or their loved ones are going to die.
Recently she’s been helping a woman from Florida, one of what the locals call The Summer People, learn which native plants will best work to make the old Honeycutt home landscaping look more authentic. The woman has a lot to learn about mountain ways but at least she’s willing to learn mountain folks’ ways, unlike so many of The Summer People who invade this beautiful area every year.
“Nora didn’t see Shirley Haverty very often. For more than half of each year, the Havertys lived in Florida, but a few years back, for reasons that were never quite clear to Nora, they had purchased the old farmhouse down the road from her to use as their summer residence. That house, the closest thing Ashe Mountain had to a mansion, was still an imposing structure despite its age and the years it had been neglected…
Now, though, here was Shirley Haverty, perched on the old sofa in her [Nora’s] parlor like an exotic bird, casting about for topics of conversation.”
When the new Honeycutt house owners decided on a whim to spend Christmas in the house instead of going back to Florida, Nora probably shouldn’t have been surprised things might get strange. Evidently something in the old traditional house isn’t too fond of pinkish silver aluminum trees with pink flamingo ornaments. Can Nora make peace with this cantankerous spirit or will it drive the new owners all the way back to Florida?
“Nora twisted her hands in her lap. ‘Well, you’re right about that, Jane. Things have already taken a turn that I didn’t quite bargain for.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Shirley Haverty stopped by again this morning. She was so agitated I could barely make out what the matter was, and it wasn’t gardening that had set her off.’
‘Why, what happened?’
‘She claims the house is haunted.’”
While Nora is busy, so are Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and Deputy Joe LeDonne. It seems one of the local mountain residents got into a fender bender with the wrong person, Senator Robertson’s wife, and then left the scene. The senator is livid and wants the man put in jail, and power does have its privileges – something that galls Sheriff Arrowood no end. Why is the senator insisting this man be arrested on Christmas Eve? Why wouldn’t December 26th work just as well when what’s done is already done? It’s not like he’s going to flee the country because of minor traffic accident. Still the police department has to serve a warrant if the judge signs it, so off the two officials go up into the mountains when they should be enjoying the holiday spirit.
“’Well, it just doesn’t seem right, that’s all. Arresting someone on Christmas Eve.’ Spencer Arrowood shivered as a gust of wind hit him, the fleece-lined glove he had just dug out of the pocket of his non-regulation sheepskin coat spun away from his numb fingers and landed with a little plop in a not-yet-frozen mud puddle beside the curb. With a weary sigh, the sheriff picked at the mud with his hand. ‘By rights, we ought to be heading home by now.’
‘Home,’ Deputy Joe LeDonne shrugged. ‘Yeah, but it’ll be quiet after this, and both the second shift officers have kids. I figured we might as well let them have the night off. Martha has left to visit her sister in Charlotte, so I got no plans. You?’ …
‘A few upstanding citizens have invited me to Christmas parties, so I reckoned I’d fetch up somewhere this evening. Maybe make the rounds of three or four of them, and make dinner out of the party tray hors d’oeuvres.’
‘Shall I reserve the drunk tank, Sheriff?’
‘Not on my account…’”
What they find is not quite what they expected; a quite elderly couple on a homeplace that’s obviously seen better days. It looks as cold inside as outside and that’s worrisome since it could begin to snow any moment. Still, J.D. Shull insists he’ll come along quietly and not make any trouble. He’s only worried about one thing. Given that it’s the holidays, he might have to sit in that jail cell for several days and he’s concerned about how his fragile wife will fare without him there to cut wood and keep the place warm. Now the sheriff and deputy don’t want that on their consciences either, so pretty soon they’re helping ensure she’ll be safe and warm while he’s away. Little do they know what’s really going on…
I’ve always loved Nora Bonesteel and it was really nice to read about her again. The second story in Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past was one that kept me chuckling as I realized what was happening. The man in this story reminded me of things my elderly mom does now, and I strongly suspected where this story was going long before it played out. That didn’t take away from the fun of reading it one bit though. Sharon McCrumb is a very visual writer. She makes the mountains, their ballads and stories, and their quirky people all come alive on the page. If you’ve never read her novels, and you like Southern ghost stories and folklore, you owe it to yourself to give them a try. I think you’ll be really glad you did.
Can’t wait to read it?
Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past was published on October 7, 2014, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). Just click on the button/link and go get it to read now!
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