A strange, slow, rewarding book, this has been rescued from obscurity thanks to the University of Nebraska's ‘19th-century American Women Writers’ series, but it deserves to be read for much better reasons than just representing various gradations of nationality, timezone or gender. As a description of Tennessee mountain life, it's a real wonder, and anyone who enjoys rich, chewy prose will find a lot to get stuck into here.
The story, such as it is, concerns an archaeologist who wants to investigate a mysterious pygmy burial-ground near a little community in the Great Smoky Mountains. To be honest it doesn't quite sustain the length of the book: I'd love to read her short stories and I suspect she'd be better over shorter distances.
But the pleasure comes from the richly Romantic, even Gothic, atmosphere of the book, which has a powerful sense of the sublime in nature and a tendency to the melancholy and the mysterious. Her prose is portentous and elaborate with an archaic vocabulary. When it misfires she can seem very clichéd:There was fire in her serene eyes, like a flare of sunset in the placid depths of a lake.
But when it works, the effects can be strangely wonderful, with something of the ornate power of Mervyn Peake, albeit here inspired by the natural world:the rising [moon] was visible through the gap in the mountains; much of the world seemed in some sort unaware of its advent, and lay in the shadow, dark and stolid, in a dull invisibility, as though without form and void. The moon had not yet scaled the heights of the great range; only that long clifty gorge cleaving its mighty heart was radiant with the forecast of the splendors of the night, and through this vista, upon the mystic burial-ground, fell the pensive light like a benison.
One character, looking out at a mountain path in the darkness, sees how it appears and reappears over the slopes,…now in the clear sheen, now lost in the black shadow, reappearing at an unexpected angle, as if in the darkness the continuity were severed, and it existed only in sinuous sections.
This is lovely stuff. The elaborate precision of her descriptions seems all the more pronounced for being juxtaposed with the dialect Murfree uses to write her characters' dialogue. The book's first line of speech, absolutely representative, is this:‘I do declar' I never war so set back in my life ez I felt whenst that thar valley man jes' upped an' axed me 'bout'n them thar Leetle Stranger People buried yander on the rise,’ declared Stephen Yates.
Some might find it irritating; I liked it, once I'd got used to deciphering it. And (as the introduction to this edition persuasively argues) by putting dialect right next to the most baroque of descriptive prose, there is a kind of inherent argument that dialect itself can be a useful prose style.
And Murfree makes the case pretty well, on balance: this is a rich and fascinating book, which well deserves to be brought back into print.