Prayers the Devil Answers by Sharyn McCrumb (Altria, 2015)
Years later, after the tragedy, someone remembered the Dumb Supper and what had happened there. That was the cause of it, they said, because the ritual wasn't a game after all. It really was magic, but magic has rules, and she broke them. Even when they call it a 'senseless tragedy,' people always try to find a reason for it.
The captivating opening scene of Prayers the Devil Answers by Sharyn McCrumb sets an ancient rite in motion that is meant to foretell the future husbands of mountain maidens. A Dumb Supper, as the ritual is called, traditionally was set on the pagan holiday of Samhain. A cadre of unmarried women would cook a supper intended for their corporeal or spiritual mates, and entice them to a deserted house in the woods at midnight, where in the secret ritual the girls would lay the table out, every step done in a backwards motion, in silence. The question that McCrumb throws out to the reader is what happens when the rite goes awry; something goes wrong . . . What becomes of the magic then?
The Dumb Supper sets the tone for McCrumb's artfully plotted novel, a book that is impossible to put down once the reader has begun the story. McCrumb, who grew up on the folk yarns of the Virginia mountains, gives a unique flavor to a time and space, shrouded in the American frontier past. Although Prayers the Devil Answers is set during the Great Depression in small town Tennessee, the roots of the hardy settlers are the thread that binds the fascinating characters of McCrumb's rich and wonderful tale.
Like many of McCrumb's works, Prayers the Devil Answers began with a kernel of truth. In the Acknowledgements McCrumb writes, “Although Prayers the Devil Answers was inspired by a true story, it was not intended to be an exact chronicle of the actual events. It is true that in 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky a woman sheriff, appointed to serve out the term of her late husband was obliged to oversee the public execution by hanging of a convicted felon. It was the last public hanging ever carried out in the United States.” (p.339) Thus, McCrumb uses this specific moment in American jurisprudence on which to build the foundation of her story.
McCrumb's charm is that she is a gifted story teller, who creates sublime character portraits of people who are believable in their strengths, but even moreso in their flaws. Ellendor Robbins, the protagonist of Prayers the Devil Answers, is as gritty as a heroine comes. Ellendor and her childhood sweetheart, Albert, have left the cramped house on his family's farm, to try life in a rural town, hoping to give their two young sons, Eddie and George, an opportunity for a decent education and better life.
Albert, with his easy manner, first works for the railroad, and is then appointed sheriff of the small town. People know and like Albert's easy manner from his deputies to the diner waitress; he has a way with words, which his quiet spouse, Ellie, does not. Unspeakably shy and friendless, Ellendor is not really lonely. It is her family's way to be retiring and fiercely independent, which is why, when tragedy strikes unexpectedly, Ellendor must find a way to provide for her two sons and herself, or return to life on the mountain living under her sister-in-law's tyranny.
Ellendor, who helped her husband with his paperwork as sheriff, is an avid reader and naturally intelligent woman. She comes upon a solution for her dilemma that seems unthinkable for a woman in the 1930s. She approaches the banker responsible for helping Albert become the sheriff and asks to be appointed for the rest of her husband's term of office. Ellendor becomes a thrilling example of what a determined female can do to fend for her family against all the male odds that put opposition in her way. Ellendor's steadfast belief in her ability to command the men in her department without making them feel inferior helps the reader to see her as a woman of good judgment and strong character.
Celia Pasten, one of the participants of the novel's opening scene of the Dumb Supper, is another female character who has decided to live an independent life. A rather plain girl, Celia determines that she will become a school teacher and not have to rely on a husband's income to take care of herself. She enjoys her job, spends long hours grading papers, and planning students' lessons, until a handsome artist stumbles into the school one day, looking for a historical picture of a pioneer battle that he wants to paint on the wall of the local post office. Celia and her artist, Lonnie Varden, suddenly find a compatibility with one another that they had not expected or really wanted in the lives they had envisioned for themselves.
Lonnie is contented with married life for a time. McCrumb writes, “He was happy with Celia, and he would not say that sometimes he wished he didn't see his future as a straight line leading directly through the decades to the grave---no turns, no shadows, no surprises, except, perhaps, unpleasant ones. Maybe that was why he had done what he had---just to put a curve in that monotonous straight line.” (p.203)
And it is in that curve that Celia's and Ellendor's fates collide and puts their stories on a parallel course. The one thing on which the reader of a Sharyn McCrumb novel can depend is that the book's conclusion will bring with it a twist worthy of O.Henry, causing a chortle to rise in the throat in the satisfaction that karma's a bitch. It is in this way that the final sentence of Prayers the Devil Answers delivers that righteous punch that the reader can't quite predict.