THE SAINTS OF SWALLOW HILL
Where the Crawdads Sing meets The Four Winds as award-winning author Donna Everhart immerses readers in a unique setting – a turpentine camp buried deep in the vast pine forests of Georgia during the Great Depression—for a captivating story of friendship, survival, and three vagabonds’ intersecting lives…
During the Great Depression, wretched labor camps crop up in remote areas of the expansive pine forests throughout the American South. Destitute workers live and toil under terrible conditions to harvest pine gum, hacking into tree trunks, drawing out the sticky sap that gives the Tar Heel State its nickname,
Where the Crawdads Sing meets The Four Winds as award-winning author Donna Everhart immerses readers in a unique setting – a turpentine camp buried deep in the vast pine forests of Georgia during the Great Depression—for a captivating story of friendship, survival, and three vagabonds’ intersecting lives…
During the Great Depression, wretched labor camps crop up in remote areas of the expansive pine forests throughout the American South. Destitute workers live and toil under terrible conditions to harvest pine gum, hacking into tree trunks, drawing out the sticky sap that gives the Tar Heel State its nickname, and hauling it to stills to be refined into turpentine. Trapped in these isolated locations, workers are entirely dependent on the often greedy, abusive camp owners who provide food and housing at grossly inflated prices. Subsistence living means racking huge debts they are forced to work off, creating an endless cycle of labor and debt. But for the most desperate among America’s vast unemployed, these camps are often the last and only option.
This much is true for three individuals whose lives intersect in the deep woods of Georgia at the Swallow Hill turpentine camp in 1932. For Rae Lynn Cobb, a young woman disguised as a man, fleeing to Swallow Hill from North Carolina offers distance and anonymity from those who would wrongly imprison her for killing her kind though careless husband. For a charming bachelor named Del Reese, it’s a place where backbreaking work might drown out memories of a recent trauma that’s shaken him to his core.
But Swallow Hill is no easy haven. The squalid camp is ruled by a sadistic boss named Crow and the greedy commissary owner Otis Riddle, a man who takes out his frustrations on his browbeaten wife, Cornelia. Del and “Ray Cobb” are physically and emotionally tested as they struggle to survive harsh, brutal conditions under the ever watchful, narrow-minded Crow. As Rae Lynn forges a deeper friendship with both Del and Cornelia, she begins to envision a path out of the camp. But she will have to come to terms with her past, with all its pain and beauty, before she can open herself to a new life and seize the chance to begin again…
- January 2022
- 352 Pages
Praise for Donna Everhart’s Novels
“Rousing…movingly explores Jessie’s struggle with her eating disorder, viscerally describing her twin desires for nourishment and purging in relation to a deep need to define herself…Everhart’s story of self-discovery, rife with colorful characters and a satisfying twist, will thrill readers.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW for The Moonshiner’s Daughter
“This riveting novel set in the 1960s will have readers, especially those who enjoy Kaye Gibbons and Anna Jean Mayhew, captivated from the first page.” —Booklist, STARRED REVIEW for The Moonshiner’s Daughter
“Reminiscent of the novels of Lee Smith, Kaye Gibbons, and Sandra Dallas, Everhart builds a firm sense of place, portraying the tiredness and hope of a dry southern summer and voicing strong southern women.” —Booklist on The Forgiving Kind
“Set in 1950s North Carolina, this touching and fearless novel is a coming-of-age story about a young heroine determined to survive and pursue justice out of love for her family.” —She Reads on The Forgiving Kind
“An adventure story and coming-of-age story wrapped into one satisfying package… Donna Everhart skillfully evokes a harsh landscape and harsh times, squarely placing the reader in Appalachia right along with the family. Wallis Ann’s complicated relationship with her sister is well explored and serves as a catalyst for her growth into a mature young woman.” —Historical Novels Review on The Road to Bittersweet
“This is a dark, haunting book that will linger with you for days, but despite the heaviness of the book, Dixie is a witty, charismatic burst of energy and sunshine who readers will want to rescue themselves. A remarkable story of the triumph of will, and a great coming-of-age novel.” —Historical Novels Review on The Education of Dixie Dupree
“[A] harrowing coming-of-age novel set in Alabama…Readers will be drawn to Dixie, who is full of spunk and grit.” —Booklist on The Education of Dixie Dupree
“This Indie Next Pick is a difficult read at times — there’s one scene in particular that I struggled with–but I applaud the author for tackling the darkest, most heinous corner of family life: the sexual abuse of a child. The novel brims with Southern charm and introduces the captivating voice of 11-year-old Ms. Dixie Dupree. Read it for her. She has a story that begs to be heard.” —BookBub on The Education of Dixie Dupree
1. What is your view Rae Lynn and Warren’s marriage? Do you think it was a marriage of convenience, or love, or do you think it transformed over time?
2. When Del meets Elijah Sweeney, a.k.a. Crow, he senses the man is trouble and is immediately on guard. Have you ever met anyone who gave you the same sense? Did your instincts prove you right?
3. Swallow Hill was filled with dangers, not only from an environmental perspective, but with regard to some of the practices. How did the setting of the labor camp impact the story for you?
4. Keeping in mind the time frame, and the need for peo¬ple to be very self-sufficient, especially in remote areas, would/could you have done what Rae Lynn did for Warren after his accident?
5. A method of solitary confinement, known as a sweat box, is used in this story. How did it make you feel reading about the experiences of individuals placed inside them?
6. Crow shares his appreciation for the trees and doesn’t want to see them ruined unnecessarily. Del admires this. Did Crow’s view of nature change your perspective of him? How did you feel when you learned what happened to him?
7. Rae Lynn and Cornelia are both strong and brave women in their own way. What do you think was Rae Lynn’s stron¬gest, bravest act? What about Cornelia’s?
8. Both Del and Rae Lynn must confront their past in order to move forward. Are you aware of something from your own past that has held you back?
9. What does the title mean to you?
Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine,
The summer land where the sun doth shine,
Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,
Here’s to “Down Home,” the Old North State!
Here’s to the land of the cotton bloom white,
Where the scuppernong perfumes the breeze at night,
Where the soft southern moss and jessamine mate,
‘Neath the murmuring pines of the Old North State!
Here’s to the land where the galax grows,
Where the rhododendron’s roseate glows,
Where soars Mount Mitchell’s summit great,
In the “Land of the Sky,” in the Old North State!
Here’s to the land where maidens are fair,
Where friends are true and cold hearts rare,
The near land, the dear land, whatever fate,
The blessed land, the best land, the Old North State!
By Leonora Monteiro Martin
He’d been working on Moe Sutton’s farm down in Clinch County, Georgia a few weeks when he and three others finished the day’s work, and he’d let it slip it was his birthday. A newly minted twenty-eight, they started giving him a hard time about not having himself a wife yet. The joking went from questions about his manliness to maybe being a bit too clean. He bathed regular. Them? Only on Saturday nights. He made sure to wash and rinse out the extra shirt and pants he had so he had something clean to put on for the week. Despite themselves, they smelled like they’d not stuck their big toe in bathwater in months. Ripe, fruity scents floated about when they were near, and only got worse as temperatures rose during the day. Their own clothes, even after the effort of their wives scrubbing them, were slick with grease and dirt, and decorated with various stains from sweat, and spills.
The loudest, Ned Baker, whose face remained bright red even when it was cool, said, “Ain’t got no hair on his chest like this here, neither. Women? Shoot, they’s partial to a hairy man.”
He pulled his shirt aside to reveal a mat of black hair, thick as a boar bristle brush.
He dipped his head toward his house, winked, and said, “She’s in there awaiting on me. I’d betcha ten to one.”
Scraggly, pint-sized Ollie Tuttle grunted in agreement, oily hair hanging in his face.
He said, “It ain’t good for one’s constitution, being that clean and such. You can give yourself the pneumony.”
He sniffed his armpit, grimaced and bobbed his head in affirmation the odor was as it should be as he bounced baby Jack on his knees, and cooed at him.
He concluded, “Smell like a polecat, but I got me a wife, and she give me two sons.” He nudged the colored man next to him, while gesturing at Del. “Our new man here, he’s right purty, ain’t he?”
The colored man, Juniper Jones, had no reaction, but that wasn’t unusual. Del got the sense he didn’t share his views on white folks and their business. He liked to kid around, and did sometimes, but, turned back to serious pretty quick. He was most intent on making sure there was food on his table. Del learned him and his wife, Mercy, had been with Moe Sutton the longest and all told, could outwork any of these “young whippersnappers.”
Delwood Reese let them have their fun. Inwardly, he smiled at the fact he’d already become pleasantly acquainted with Baker and Tuttle’s wives. Del, as he liked to be called, considered how Juniper’s wife, Mercy, kept mostly to herself, although he suspected she had to know there was some hanky-panky going on. He’d always wondered how it might be with a colored woman. Best as he could tell, she was a lot younger than ole Juniper. For all his luck with the opposite sex, he’d yet to have such an encounter, but he dreamed of it. Now, with them other two, it had started off innocent enough. He’d come here after the farm he’d worked at for a couple years failed and the family was forced to move in with relatives somewhere in Virginia. Since the big crash back in ’29, farms were going bust all over the countryside with crop prices dropping so it was near about impossible for anyone to make a living, much less pay their bills.
Del had come to Sutton’s farm with two dollars, the clothes on his back, a couple cans of Vienna sausages, his rifle, and Melody, the harmonica which had been his granddaddy’s. He’d bundled all of it together using his extra pants and shirt, with a stick stuck through the tied knot, a real hobo looking get up. He didn’t need much no how. He was a man of simple means, always had been. Besides, he was glad, considering the times, he didn’t have a family to provide for. Moe Sutton grew acres upon acres of tobacco, alongside vast cornfields. Del had gazed across the fields, saw the sharecropper shacks, and the sharecropper wives tending their small kitchen gardens, hanging out the Monday wash, caring for a passel of young’uns running around barefoot, and thought maybe he could stay here awhile. It was peaceful enough, the scenery not so bad. Moe Sutton seemed like he was doing all right despite the country’s circumstances. Maybe it would work out fine.
It wasn’t long after he’d been hired on, a day or two at the most, Baker’s wife, Sarah, smiled kindly at him, and invited him to eat after seeing him sitting in the doorway of his little abode, all by his lonesome, puffing a soft sweet tune on Melody. The Bakers were right beside him, each family taking one of the shanty houses set in a row facing the cornfields.
Sarah said, “Come have some supper.”
It was the standard poor man’s meal, fried potatoes, sliced hot dogs and biscuits, but they also had some fresh corn and sliced tomatoes. She served the food on mismatched, chipped dishes, and when she set a plate in front of him, she turned it to hide the imperfection. She sure was easy on the eyes. Her fingertips brushed Del’s as she passed what was meant to be butter, but they all knew was really lard tinted yellow with salt added. Sarah Baker had a pouty mouth, large breasts that jiggled without the benefit of an undergarment beneath the flour sack material of her homespun dress. He caught her staring at him several times, always dropping her eyes when he glanced her way. The two children, Raymond, a boy of four and Jack, the baby, gawked at him with big blue orbs clear as the summer sky. Del winked, and the older boy giggled.
Next day he’d seen Tuttle’s wife, Bertice. She was fine-boned, quite timid in nature. A thin woman with a thin mouth. She carried a baby boy about on her hips while another child, a boy too, clung to her apron.
She poured Tuttle a cup of chicory coffee out on the porch, and as Del made his way by, Tuttle called out, “Come have you a cup, Del.”
He climbed the steps and sat across from the man who constantly held a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, and had a tendency to make odd “pt, pt, pt” sounds like he was trying to spit something out. Bertice generally kept her eyes averted, but her reserved nature didn’t last long, not when Del began to work his charm, because if there was any woman, anywhere within eyesight of him, it was as if he couldn’t help himself. He had to know, what was she like?
Soon, she was inviting him over as often as Sarah, because, as she put it, “A man ought not have to eat alone.”
It went on from there, insignificant, innocent conversations he’d have with one or the other that became more animated, more flirty, and then there came timid touching, progressing to brave banter, and greedy grabbing. Del thought of it as a naturally occurring thing, that next step. If they were willing, well, so was he. He never went after them. He eased himself into their lives and let the chips fall where they may. If it happened, it happened. If not, it wasn’t of any consequence. More often than not opportunistic moments came, and he snatched them up along with the faithfulness of their husbands. Swift couplings over kitchen tables while the man of the house went to use the privy. The shooing of older kids outside to play, babies nestled in a drawer bed with a sugar tit, chubby little hands waving freely while their mamas hastened to push aside the dishes. There among the scent of ham, biscuits, string beans simmering, sweaty effort lingered on in the crude, dusty shacks outside the cornfields.
Sometimes it would happen behind an outhouse, or by the side of a tobacco barn that faced dense pines, or way, way back in a field of tall, almost to the sky corn, the only witnesses, the sun overhead, or the occasional squirrel sitting on a branch. Opportunities arose regular as night turning to day, and he had to be careful one didn’t find out about the other. There was danger in it. Excitement. Close calls. They were addicted to him, tender towards him, most important of all, protective of him, swearing everlasting loyalties. They seemed needy for something only he could give, and he was willing.
Baker and Tuttle continued to poke and joke. To hint maybe he was, you know, funny in that kind of way. They’d sometimes seem suspicious when Sarah or Bertice stared at him a mite too long. Del didn’t mind the trivial witticisms about his nature. He had it real good here, almost enjoying himself, though he was tired most of the time. Meanwhile, Juniper’s wife, Mercy, remained aloof, undiscovered territory, like when he’d venture into a new county and everything was fresh and new to the eye.
One afternoon he was behind one of those tobacco barns with Sarah, and he spotted her, Mercy. There he was, red faced, and perspiring like he was hand-picking corn of a summer day, giving Sarah his all – again – for the third time this week. Sarah couldn’t see a thing with her dress flung over her head. Mercy sat tucked away on her small porch, partially hidden under a pink crepe myrtle, looking like she wasn’t looking, but maybe she was. She sat there, a bowl in her lap, shelling peas. He kept his gaze on her the entire time, fantasizing, and only paused a second when Sarah’s head accidentally banged into the side of the tobacco barn, so wrapped up in the moment was he.
“Ow!” she said, “Slow down!”
Right after she spoke, Mercy went inside and slammed the door shut. Del tilted his head back, stared at the clouds floating by as he finished his mission. Damn, but he was curious about that one.
Then, he met Moe’s wife, Myra. Myra was a large woman, almost as tall as Moe. She stood on the back porch of their house, a two story, columned affair that could easily fit all of their tiny shacks inside of it and then some. Yes, Moe Sutton had done good for himself, considering not only the economic situation, but with respect to his wife. Moe was not a handsome man, but Myra? Myra’s hair was the color of a brand new penny, her skin pink and smooth. Del imagined her like a bowl of peaches and cream, and his typical curiosity went to an even higher peak with regard to her.
He’d come to the big house to work a different field, and stood at the bottom of the first step waiting on Moe. Those steps led to the porch where the vision that was Myra stared down at him as he twirled his straw hat.
“Who’re you?” She had a lace hanky and waved it in front of her face in a vain attempt to cool off.
“Name’s Del, ma’am.”
He caught the scent of her, lilacs and lust.
“You new, ain’t you?”
“Yes’m. Been here about a month.”
“Whatever your husband tells me.”
Moe came out, glared at her, and she scooted back inside, and slammed the door shut. Afterward, it seemed to Del she was all over the place. Strolling about the yard as he and the others walked by on their way to a tobacco or corn field. Pointing out something to be done to one of the help. Glancing his way a little too often. One evening she showed up as he sat on the steps of his shanty and asked his advice about a poorly mule.
He said, “What makes you think I know anything about mules?”
His thinking went in another direction as she twirled a strand of brilliant hair, pondering if what lay under her skirt was the same color. Maybe she could interpret he’d had such thoughts, because he caught the change in her expression, a knowledge she was aware she had an effect on him.
She ignored his question, and said, “He’s in the barn. Been limping. Won’t you look at him?”
He followed her swaying backside, and once in the barn, she bypassed niceties, pleasantries, or anything else considered respectable prior to such a coupling. Moe was off somewhere, she said. Hurry, she said. He had her in the stall beside the perfectly healthy mule. From that moment on, Del was a busy man juggling three women, but it was Myra who was most demanding. On a warm evening she ordered him to meet her in the woods near a distant corn field. He’d been with her earlier, a hasty encounter by the tomato vines growing behind the ham shed. Wasn’t that enough? Could be she was jealous. Maybe she’d seen him with Sarah because she directed him to go to the same corn field he’d been the day before with the other woman.
They started like always, quiet, surreptitious. He was about there, when out of nowhere Myra caterwauled, loud as a screech owl. Startled, he clapped a hand over her mouth when another, different noise came from behind him. He disengaged from Myra, and quickly did up his pants. There was a hush all around, the woods unnaturally quiet, and now, he’d lost his nerve, among other things. Myra huffed and yanked her dress down.
“What’s the matter,” she said.
Del moved away from her, and saw the source of his unsettled feeling. Moe, that big lug of a man who could eat five chickens in one sitting, glared at him from a few feet away. Stomping through a row of the corn, shotgun aimed at Del, he looked fit to be tied. Myra bent down to pick a wild flower, acting as if her husband’s appearance was as common as a sudden rain shower.
Del raised both his hands, “I was out for a walk, and your missus here joined me, no harm intended, or done.”
Myra held the wildflower to her nose, ignoring her husband. Moe abruptly stuck the end of the barrel under her dress and flipped it up, exposing her thighs.
She snatched the material down, and yelled, “Moe!”
He yelled back, “Where’s your doggone bloomers, Myra? What are you doing out here without no bloomers on?”
Myra said, “It’s hot! I’m cooler this way!”
Moe grabbed her elbow and pushed her in the direction he’d come.
He said, “Git on back to the house! Git! I’ll tend to you when I get there.”
Myra flung the flower on the ground, and huffed her way through the stalks. Moe turned to Del. He stared at him long and hard, and Del had the feeling he was contemplating his next move. He couldn’t be certain of what Moe had seen or not, but the other man’s countenance suggested it was more than Del wanted. Del started to speak, only Moe turned away and started after Myra.
Over his shoulder, Moe said, “Tomorrow, I want you working the grain bins.”
Del rubbed his forehead, and considered the job. He could set plants, sucker, and hand tobacco, pull corn, but working the grain bins? It was a dangerous if you had to go inside them.
He couldn’t refuse unless he wanted to lose this job, so he said, “Okay.”
Back at his shanty, he filled his wash bowl, splashed his face, neck and forearms. He rummaged around for what he might eat, only to sit at the table with a can of beans, his appetite gone. He started to brew some coffee, but his last bit was running low, and it was hard to come by. Rationing was happening all over, and stores couldn’t hardly keep sugar, meat, fish, eggs, cheese and real coffee on shelves. Nowadays it was the chicory kind. He went on the porch, spooned beans in his mouth, chewed slow, and thought. He could hear the murmur of his neighbors’ voices, the clanging of pots, and he caught the smell of something frying. Out of the three women, he’d wished it had been one of the other husbands who’d caught him. Not Moe Sutton. After he’d eaten, he pulled out Melody and tried tooting out a tune. Even that didn’t help his jangly nerves.
The next morning Del joined a couple new men he’d not met before at the big house. Thomas Wooten, “Woot” for short, introduced himself as Moe Sutton’s repair man. Any farm equipment broke down, he was the one to fix it. He bragged about how he kept everything repaired, wheels oiled, sheds restored like new, fences mended, anything to do with wood or engines, he was Moe’s man. Hicky Albright rolled his eyes.
He said, “You got it easy. Try working them damn chicken houses. He got near about four hundred birds, and I can’t get the smell off’n me.”
They stood with Del in Moe’s back yard, smoking, flicking ash, getting acquainted. Moe came out the door, biscuit filled with sausage in one hand, cigar in the other.
He pointed at them, and said, “Let’s go.” To Woot and Hicky he said, “Y’all shovel.” To Del he said, “You, you get to walk down the grain.”
His face, cunning and shrewd, made Del’s innards shrivel. Everyone made their way to the bins, shovels and picks over shoulders, the early morning already warm as the rising sun broke over the horizon. Moe had three circular corrugated steel structures about twenty four feet tall, with the name “Butler” painted in a faded blue near the top. They appeared harmless, but, anybody who’d ever done farm work knew they could be a death trap. Del stared at them. Three bins, one for each woman he’d cheated with here. A door located at the bottom would be opened to allow grain to spill out once he’d loosened up the corn. Woot and Hicky went and stood by the door of the first one. A 1928 Chevy truck with a wood bed built on the back sat nearby to shovel corn into once it was free and flowing. Del’s job was to go inside and as Moe said, walk it down, which sounded simple, but wasn’t.
Del went to the ladder attached on the side near the door and stared up. He’d farmed in some capacity much of his life. None of it was easy. Most of it was hard. All of it was dangerous, he reckoned, to some degree. This job, though. He’d known a feller who like to have suffocated when he sank in the grain to his chest. It wouldn’t necessarily happen to him, it was only a possibility. With this encouraging thought in mind, he ascended the ladder. Moe followed on his heels.
Del said, “When’s the last time corn got taken from this bin?”
He worried over this. The corn was likely moldy, stuck together. When he got to the top, he pulled the trap door open and looked inside. The bin was more than half full. By Del’s calculation, there was at least a fifteen foot depth of hardened corn kernels.
Moe, several rungs below him, glared, and said, “Git on in there.”
“You got a rope, or something I can tie off to the ladder?”
“Ain’t got no rope.”
“What if I step somewhere and sink, what am I to grab a hold of?”
Moe was direct. “Best start praying, I reckon. Now move.”
Del completed the climb. He had to yank on the trap door a time or two before it opened. He stuck afoot into the hole, searching, and finding the top rung of the ladder inside. He lifted his other leg over and in, and then lowered himself so he stood on the last rung still above the corn. After letting his eyes adjust, he noted around the grain around the perimeter was higher, with a gradual slope that dipped in the middle, shaping the corn like a cone. He eased one foot onto the surface, then the other, and sank to his ankles. He gripped the rung, afraid to let go.
Moe’s head appeared in the opening above him. “Why’re you standing there, get busy.”
Del took his hands away from the ladder, hobbled to the side of the bin, and began stabbing the end of the shovel into the grain one handed while keeping his other hand on the wall for balance. Despite the moldiness, it came loose easy enough, and he kept walking in a circle around the edge, poking here and there. Eventually, after nothing happened, he got brave enough to go to toward the middle, and after a while, he’d done all he could. He went back to the ladder, climbed it, and stuck his head through the opening like a gopher coming out of a hole, relishing the warm, fresh air.
He yelled to the other two. “Open the door!”
Hicky gave him a thumbs up, and swung the door open.
They took their pick axes and began chopping at the wall of grain and Woot yelled, “Here it comes!”
Del descended the outside ladder, relieved. He’d been given a pass for the first woman. By the end of the day, they finished emptying the bin. Two to go. The second day went like the first. Del inside, loosening the grain before helping Woot and Hicky shovel for all they were worth, eager to be done. A second forgiveness for another wrongdoing. Moe hung around watching, smoking a fat cigar. Third day, Del climbed the ladder, and stared inside like he’d done with the other two, gauging the depth. This bin had more in it, about three quarters full.
“Last one,” he said out loud to nobody.
Moe stalked to the base of the ladder, and prodded him with a command, “Quit wasting time!”
Del entered the bin and began like usual, chipping away at moldy, compacted corn, until Moe shouted, “Open the door, let’s get this show on the road,” and Del froze, mouth open.
Hicky protested, “It ain’t safe with him in there, is it?”
Alarmed, Del went to high-stepping it back to the inside ladder quick as he could. His quick movements seemed to make him sink, and he fell. He became more rattled when he couldn’t get up right away. He scrambled to his feet somehow, and began promising himself, when he got to the ladder, and got out of the bin, he’d tell Moe he’d do anything but this, and if Moe didn’t like it, he’d quit. He’d find work, and if he didn’t, he’d live off the land. He’d done it before. Ten more steps, and without any warning, what he’d feared happened. The corn suddenly began to collapse around him, causing him to slide towards the center of the bin where he was quickly buried to his thighs. His legs felt as if they were encased in cement. He couldn’t move them one bit, and he fell forward, grabbing at the grain, which did nothing but cause more to cascade down around him. He straightened up and it was to his waist.
He yelled as loud as he could, “Shut the door, shut the damn door!”
He stared up at the hole he’d climbed through. Empty. He coughed, wheezed, and choked on the dust created by the moving grain.
He yelled, “Help!” as Moe yelled, “Shovel!”
He sank to his chest, his arms resting on top, futilely scratching at the kernels. It was like treading water, all he was doing was moving them around. The pressure and his descent increased with every exhalation. The corn acted like a vice, clamping down, squeezing tighter for every tiny move he made. The air gave off a distinct musty odor, and the scent made him sick. The corn was restless, relentless, like some freakish living mass that continued to build around him. It had happened so fast, if he became completely buried, how long would it take a six foot, two inch man to suffocate? Too long. It was to his neck now. Kernels touched his lips, slid inside his ears. He raised his chin, spit, and gasped. Seconds passed, the pressure on his chest was unyielding. He couldn’t inhale deeply anymore, and became so lightheaded, he saw stars like he’d hit his head. With his face tipped up, his breathing grew even more shallow. He focused on the opening, that small square of blue sky, willing someone, anyone, to appear. Sweat and tears blurred his sight.
He wasn’t ready to die.
Coming from the “Tar Heel State,” I’d heard comments here and there about the origins of this nickname, but I’d never known the true story. When I finally did begin to investigate, I landed upon another unique aspect of the South’s past with its own unusual name: naval stores. Simply a term for goods derived from the resin of pine trees, naval stores were used to waterproof wooden ships and sailing tackle. The pine forests of the American South were a world renowned source of this tar, pitch, and turpentine, and North Carolina was the top producing state. Because the sticky pine sap clung to everything as it was being harvested – including the soles of workers’ bare feet – people doing this brutally hard work were often referred to as “tar heels.”
Working in a Depression-era turpentine camp was a combination of positives and negatives. Harvesting turpentine was a brutal, hot, and dirty process, but the rhythmic work could offer a kind of peace. The flat, grassy savannas of pine forest and the tall longleaf pines were uniquely beautiful, yet the landscape was filled with danger in many forms.
Of course, a job of any kind was a godsend, especially one offering a place to live and access to food. Labor camps were like self-contained small towns with a commissary, schools, churches, even sometimes a “juke joint” where workers could go after a long day for a drink, music, and perhaps other “entertainment.” But because the camps were set in such isolated locations, the owners could charge exorbitant prices for rent and supplies. Workers had no choice but to rack up huge debts they were forced to work off in a form of indentured servitude that was nearly impossible to escape.
My characters in The Saints of Swallow Hill meet at one such turpentine camp in Georgia. There they face extreme physical and mental challenges, but there’s also serenity and meaningful friendships to be found in the vast pine woods.
I hope you will come to love this story as much as I do. If you share your thoughts on social media, please use #TheSaintsofSwallowHill and/or #DonnaEverhart so I can find your comments. You can also learn more about me and my stories of the South at www.donnaeverhart.com.