Acclaimed novelist explores mountain feud legacy
by Rob Neufeld
“I had always regarded the Hatfield-McCoy feud with derision,” author Lisa Alther reflects in her new book, “Blood Feud,” a work of history that stems from a family connection as well as from a desire to show the far-reaching causes and effects of the Appalachian stereotype.
“Dim-witted psychopaths fighting over the ownership of a hog” is what Alther had heard about the feud, growing up in the household of a prominent Kingsport, Tenn. doctor.
Alther’s first novel, “Kinflicks,” rocked the reading world in 1976 with its gritty depiction of an identity-seeking debutante. Since then she has published eight other books, including six novels—most recently, “Washed in the Blood,” an exploration of Melungeon family history.
The fight over an allegedly stolen hog, a civil suit pressed by a McCoy versus a Hatfield in 1878, reignited resentment over Civil War atrocities.
In January, 1865, Jim Vance, a Hatfield uncle and member of the “guerilla group” defending Confederate homes in West Virginia, had killed Kentucky Unionist Harmon McCoy, home from the war with injuries.
“‘Bad Jim’ Vance, tall muscular, still mean as a snake, and with that droopy mustache,” Alther writes, “had a condition that made his eyes bulge and roll.
“He couldn’t focus on you when he talked, but to think he wasn’t paying attention was a mistake. He could draw a pistol faster than a copperhead could strike.”
Alther has scoured newspaper reports, government records, oral histories, and family archives to pull from the slanted accounts details that flesh out her non-fiction characters. Within a story that you really wish Alther had developed as fiction, imagining dialogue and thought processes, she uses her glimpses to build drama.
“Bad Jim Vance, eyes rolling” she narrates about Vance’s call-out to Harmon, “rested his hand on his rifle butt.”
The feud’s wake
The Hatfield-McCoy feud lasted another generation after the hog trial, involving wealth, power, and romance; and leaving about two dozen dead.
“After the feud ended,” Alther writes, “corporations moved into the region to exploit the natural resources and the labor of its remaining inhabitants under the guise of bringing Progress to this race of feuding ‘white savages.’”
The use of demeaning stereotypes to justify territorial takeover is an old story, as is, Alther says, the fomenting of civil war, played out “most recently in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan. Perhaps the microcosm offered by the Hatfield-McCoy feud can provide some fresh insights.”
Close to the bone
Alther allows many currents to deepen her story without losing a sense of the fateful whole.
The first current is personal.
“One summer afternoon in 2007,” she relates in her introduction, “I attended a reunion of my father’s family, the Reeds, held at a Dunkard church in Kentucky some ten miles, as the crow flies, from the Tug Fork Valley,” where the feud took place.
“Did you know that my husband, Homer, was one of the Fighting McCoys?” Alther’s father’s cousin asked her.
Later on in her research, Alther discovered that Vance, after killing Harmon McCoy, had killed her great-uncle’s cousin, from whose friend he was stealing horses in Virginia. She was also related, she learned, to Craig Tolliver, born in Ashe County, NC, and a major participant in the 1880s Martin-Tolliver feud in Rowan County, Ky.
“The understanding came to me slowly,” Alther says. “My fear of the Cumberlands, a visceral one, had been passed down to me from my grandparents by a process of osmosis. You inherit your ancestors’ genes, but you also inherit, after birth, the psychic fallout from traumas they endured during their lifetimes.”
When in college, involved in the Civil Rights movement, Alther had had a revelation about the distinction between the plantation South and the mountain South. That insight came to life as she sought to root out the Snuffy Smith-typecasting that she, too, had been guilty of harboring as part of her popular culture.
“Blood Feud” joins a host of key paradigm-shifting books about mountain identity, including: “Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers” by Ronald Eller; and “The Mind of the South” by W.J. Cash.
Alther’s personal connection classes her book also with great Appalachian memoirs, such as John O’Brien’s “At Home in the Heart of Appalachia.”
Her personal journey takes her to a final revelation—how people stereotype themselves. Many of the feudists, she states, copied the examples of their Civil War and Indian-fighting ancestors, “donning the hillbully stereotype bequeathed them,” and “mistaking cruelty for justice and stupidity for heroism.”
Alther herself is one of the stereotypes—a mute witness. Her drama, which she strives to put forward as a Shakespearean tragedy, complete with a depressing Romeo and Juliet episode, leads to a call to action against obsolete stereotypes, despite knowledge of historical forces.
“Like a horse whisperer,” she concludes her book, “I now calm my own inherited terror of hellhounds who attack in the night with self-assurances that such episodes are ancient history that need alarm me no longer.
“I have also recently bought a bridge in Brooklyn…”
Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance by Lisa Alther (Lyons Press hardcover, 2012, 304 pages)