Review: Historical Novel Society - January 31, 2013
I'd only vaguely heard of the Melungeons before reading Washed in the Blood. Lisa Alther has brought this mysterious Appalachian race out of the shadows with her excellent novel. This multigenerational story depicts the coming-together of the Melungeons, or Porterghee Indians. She introduces us to Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors in search of treasure, Cherokees defending their land, escaped African slaves, and Englishmen searching for new homes. Their descendants live in the Shenandoah Valley, calling the disputed area the Squabble State. It is not always hospitable, and such places as Hunger Mountain mark where settlers lost their battle with the elements.
Racial tension also makes life difficult. Will Martin is a young doctor who received his education in return for practicing in his state after World War I. His skin is not fair enough to let him pass for white, even though he has had the extra fingers removed which mark him as one of the mixed-blood folk. His fair-skinned wife, Galicia, is also his cousin.
The Martins are generally accepted by their community, but then Will reads about a "Secret Negro" who is lynched for raping a white woman, though they were married. That man's skin and features were little different from Will's own. Will now questions his own identity. White? Black? And what of Will and Galicia's unborn baby? It is a roll of the genetic dice for them. If that child is born dark, they could be forced from their home or worse. Ms. Alther handles Will and Galicia's dilemma with sensitivity, and her story grabbed me from the first sentence.
Review by: Ruth Moose, The Pilot - July 8, 2012
Who knows where a DNA test will take you?
Not sure I ever want to go here, but Lisa Alther got two books from hers - plus answers to a million questions on how she came to be and who begat whom. Maybe she even got more than she really wanted to know.
Take the word Mulungeon. I grew up hearing my mother tell my brothers anytime they had dirty or chocolate-smeared faces (just before a spit bath), they looked like Mulungeons. (I never got dirty since I was always reading instead of rolling in the grass.)
Alther grew up in Kingsport, Tenn., and heard all her life, but didn't quite know much, about the dark-skinned people who lived together in a remote region of the mountains. She heard stories, myths and tales about their origins: descendants of Desoto, Portuguese, native tribes, all. A tell-tale was the six fingers on each hand.
In her DNA search, Alther found some Mulungeon along with bits of a lot of other cultures, so she wrote a memoir of her search and her findings called "Kinfolks."
At the same time she began 10 years of historical research into the settlement of the South and the Appalachians, starting with the Conquistadors. (Remember black and white drawings of those metal- plated, helmented men with spears from your history books?) I was absolutely fascinated.
Alther had me hooked for 459 pages starting in 1597, a boy and a dog aboard a sailing ship set for LaFlorida. When the dog goes overboard, I'm in for the long haul. Diego Martin is the young swineherd. (Of course the Spanish bring pigs to bred and eat. Barbecue is one of the four basic food groups.)
How this troop battles the wilderness, the native tribes and each other makes for exciting reading and good, good writing! Alther weaves in her research so carefully, builds her characters so adroitly, you walk those mountain paths, enter into this patchwork world of dark and white and in-betweens.
Lisa Alther wrote several best-selling novels before "Washed in the Blood," but this is the book of her heart. It shows in every line.
Review by: Tahir Shah, Author of The Caliph's House - December 12, 2011
WASHED IN BLOOD is the very best kind of novel -- one that's been painstakingly researched from the inside out. Founded on a quest for her own ancestors, Lisa Alther builds on material presented in her memoir, KINFOLKS, to create a totally compelling page-turner. The result is a masterpiece of modern fiction, one inspired by the fascinating realities of early racial mixing in America's south. It's a book that stays with you, gets under your skin, and seeps into the very marrow of your bones.
Review by: Daniel J. Sharfstein, Author of The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White - August 7, 2011
A feat of historical imagination, Washed in the Blood explores the fascinating racial heritage of Appalachia with profound humanity. Alther's unforgettable characters live and breathe and persevere, embracing a world that would deny their existence. Read this book for an intimate family saga and a stirring American epic.