This book takes us back to the days when people in Appalachia were looked down on, and city folks got a charge out of hearing about the quaint and primitive ways of the mountain folk. Journalist-author Sharon Hatfield, who is from the region where this true story played out, was intrigued by the sensational murder trial and subsequent appeals of a headstrong young woman whose coal-miner father was so strict that, in one reporter's words, she had "never seen the moon" because she was forbidden to go out at night.
The father who forbade his grown daughter to enjoy the rather innocent pleasures of the Jazz Age as they manifested in rural Virginia in 1935 turned up dead of head wounds one dark night, on the porch of his house in the small town of Pound. Everyone in Pound knew everyone else, and they knew that Trigg Maxwell was a drunkard but basically a good man, and that his daughter Edith was turning a bit wild since her return from teacher's college far from home. Still, they might have been inclined to let the crime go down as manslaughter or even accidental death had Edith not acted so strange, so cold, the night her father died. By report of those nearby who heard strange noises emanating from the home, she and her mother spent some time covering up what may have been a brutal crime before they called for help for Trigg, who died in the arms of the town pharmacist. Though a murder weapon was never found (some suggested it was a high-heeled shoe, giving the events a bizarre and sensational aspect) Edith was accused, tried, and sentenced to 25 years in prison
- a harsh sentence, and one that attracted the tabloid reporters of the day, some of whom went on to become famous. Ernie Pyle and James Thurber were among those who wrote about Edith's unfair treatment in the frontier atmosphere of coal country.
Edith's older brother, Earl, who had moved away years before because of Trigg's beatings, came back to defend his sister.
Thinking to help her, he called on assistance from the media. Reporters by the dozens swarmed into Pound and nearby Wise where the trials were held. They interviewed the attractive schoolmarm and reveled in sending back dispatches about the queer locals with their strange accents, their odd superstitions, and their mistrust of "furriners." The implication was that Edith was a free-thinking intelligent girl who was being held in check by an old-fashioned code of patriarchic domination. There were insinuations of incest. Such stories delighted the city folks and fueled support for Edith in the press,
but the denigrating portraits of life in Wise County set the locals against the press and, by extension, against Edith herself.
The story of Edith, Trigg, and their family reached the ears of no less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt, whose discreet inquiries may have helped to get Edith out of prison after only a few years.
But the damage done to the image of the good people of Wise County took many more years to fade, and in some ways, it has never been finally put to rest. While reading this book, I made a daytrip up to Pound and Wise to get a taste of the atmosphere of the tale of Edith Maxwell. Though her house is gone and there are signs of progress in the region, coal country remains a dark blot on the American landscape, a place of hopelessness and helplessness where justice has not always been served, as witness the raped and scarred land laid bare by open-pit mining and the polluted rivers that crisscross the hills and hollers.