A pretty schoolteacher is accused of killing her father. Is she truly a cold-blooded murderer? Or is being beautiful and educated in rural Virginia preventing from her receiving a fair trial? What is the truth? And does the truth even matter?
That last question is at the heart of Sharyn McCrumb’s The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, the most recent addition to her Ballad series. The Ballad novels are love letters to the traditions and lands of Appalachia. But The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is also a spirited defense of the mountain people and even an attack on those who stereotype the region as backwards.
In 1935, Erma Morton is jailed for murdering her father, and all the national newspapers send reporters to cover the story. No one is under any illusion that this tale of intrigue involving a beautiful schoolteacher is an important story. In fact, if Morton had been plain, the reporters probably wouldn’t be there at all. As Rose Hanelon reflects, “People didn’t really want the truth anyhow. They only wanted the story to make sense. Real life didn’t always make sense, though; sometimes you had to help it along.” Henry Jernigan is also jaded: “Erma Morton did not kill the deceased—at least, not they way Henry intended to fashion the tale—and strict accuracy meant as little to Henry Jernigan as it had to Shakespeare and Homer. The story was all, and mere facts must not be allowed to mar its literary symmetry.”
Carl Jennings, trying to prove his worth on his first major assignment, realizes that caring about the truth puts him in a lonely minority that may cost him his job. The national reporters have obviously already made up their minds about the town and the trial before setting foot in Virginia. Carl even has doubts about Erma’s own brother’s interest in the truth; he’s a little too concerned about the money her notoriety will bring.
While the trial holds the plot of the novel together, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is more of a cautionary tale about what can happen when reporters think themselves smarter than their readers and when they are more concerned with the impact of the story than with the truth. This message has obvious implications for today’s media climate. But don’t think for a second that McCrumb has set aside her ability to tell a stirring story or develop compelling characters. In this Ballad novel, her love song to the mountains may have taken a different tone, but a love song it still definitely is.
Sharyn McCrumb will discuss The Devil Amongst the Lawyers in four appearances across the state this week; find details in Events.