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Once These Hills

Once These Hills

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Author(s)/Editor(s): McGinley, Chris - -

YearMonthDay of Publication: 20230825
Standardized Book Category: Historical - 20th Century - General
Language: EnglishPage Count: 00332

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In 1898, life on Black Boar Mountain in eastern Kentucky is quiet for the small settlement of farmers and drovers who work the land around their little cabins. But when ten-year old Lydia King and her father unearth an ancient, preserved body up on the seep bog, a curse is let loose . . . or so some believe. Once These Hills is a gritty, historical crime novel aimed at fans of rural noir. It's set in the hills of Appalachia, a place where spirits, dangerous animals, and escaped criminals roam the terrain right alongside the settlers who seek only to live simply.

Life first begins to change for the hard-working mountaineers when the railroad lays track to support the timber company, hell bent on clearcutting the entire forest despite the damage caused to people and the landscape. To keep costs down, the railroad uses convict labor. Problem is, a trio of violent prisoners feel the work isn't exactly to their liking, and so they decide to kill a guard and take to the hills. Guided by their ring leader Burr Hollis, a predatory, sadistic man whose name inspires fear amongst the hardest of criminals, they sneak onto Black Boar under cover of night. There they murder Lydia's father and terrorize the family. But Lydia, now thirteen and deadly with a bow and arrow, slays one of the marauding convicts and sends the other two running.

Of course, the town sheriff works hand-in-glove with the railroad, and he puts more effort into protecting the company from bad publicity than into tracking the escaped prisoners-a fact that doesn't sit well with those on Black Boar. Clytie Noe, a whiskey-sipping friend of the King family, handy with a rifle herself, encourages Lydia to pursue the convicts along with her--using evidence from a tintype one of the rouges has accidentally left behind. But in the meantime, Lydia falls in love, and after a few years she marries a mountain boy named Cole Clemmons, someone as skilled and at home in the woods as she. Lydia discovers an intimate part of herself with Cole, and she experiences both a sexual and spiritual awakening that allows her to put the tragedy behind her.

Or so she thinks.

Not surprisingly, the timber company continues to ravage the hills, and game becomes increasingly hard to find. It's a standoff between the mountain community and the "woodhicks." In time, Lydia's young husband realizes he can no longer provide for his wife through hunting and farming, even with her able help. Against Lydia's wishes, he signs on to work at the sawmill in the valley. When he's killed in an accident that could have been prevented, Lydia suffers a breakdown and nearly loses the baby she's long tried to conceive. On top of this, further ills threaten the little community, like forest fires and a rattlesnake infestation-courtesy of unchecked clearcutting. A duplicitous country reverend in the pocket of the company tries to convince the mountaineers that their struggles are a warning from God, and he encourages them to flee before the devil takes hold of Black Boar. With the support of the company, and through use of some underhand tactics, he does all he can to remove them.

It becomes clear to Lydia that the timbermen will stop at nothing to chase off the people of Black Boar. With the death of her husband-which she rightly blames on the company-her grief turns to rage. Around this time, one of the the escaped convicts is ensnared by a clever deputy. Lydia uses the lost tintype (in a wily cat-and-mouse game) to solicit information on the other man still at large. It works. Burr Hollis is captured and brought to jail in the valley below Black Boar. But when the cagey, deranged Burr escapes from the holding cell, panic ensues. Burr knows that it was Lydia whose ruse helped to capture him, and he heads up onto Black Boar for a reckoning.

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