A short drive down U.S. 441 toward Cherokee, I pass the place where I saw Nance Dude with a load of firewood on her back (circa 1948), and not far from that is the spot where 19 chain-gang members drowned in 1882. When I drive through the WCU campus, I am reminded of Robert Madison who made a fateful journey to Jackson County more than a century ago. Just a short distance up N.C. 107 going toward Cashiers, I pass “Aunt Sally’s monument,” erected by Dr. John R. Brinkley, the “goat-gland man,” shortly after he rose to national fame with his radio station, XERA, “the station between the nations.”
My point is, Jackson has a rich past that combines history with folklore. It is a deep well where historians, writers and storytellers can draw endless tales (true and embellished) and they will never exhaust the supply.
However, like all of the counties in this region, Jackson has a few tales that may give the tellers and writers “pause.” In other words, we may hesitate to discuss ancient tales that touch on our history and heritage in a personal way. Such a tale is the “Hooper-Watson Feud,” which began in the years before and following the Civil War. It is a story so drenched in blood and horror that storytellers often hesitate to explore it.
Which brings us to a new novel, Revenge, by Ann Robbins-Phillips, which is based on the aforementioned feud. In fact, the author claims ties to both families. In addition, Revenge is the first of a trilogy based on a survivor of the original massacre and his stubborn search for revenge/justice. The second novel, Sorrow, and the third, Bad Blood, are sequels and technically have nothing to do with the infamous massacre since they follow the lives and travails of the descendants in places outside of our region (Tennessee and South Carolina).
The author’s attempts to use dialect and/or “mountain language” are inconsistent, contradictory and often unintentionally comical. The author calls potatoes, “taters,” and then, in later dialogue, she often calls them “potatoes.” She illustrates a misunderstanding of such mountain expressions as “they” as an explanation of surprise, as in “They! I can’t believe it,” or “they” as my grandmother used it “They’s a man at the door that wants to speak to you.” There are also instances in which “wandered” is confused with “wondered,” and there is an inconsistency in the use of the words “drug” and “dragged,” which has nothing to do with mountain speech. The same speaker who says “skeered” in one sentence used the word “scared” in the same scene.
Revenge contains an impressive amount of folklore and folkways. The author has researched items such as “planting by the signs,” although the technique for planting potatoes is unusual (cut the eye out of the seed and plant only the eye). Appalachian superstitions regarding warnings and portents that are present in dreams are abundant in this novel. In Revenge, the spirits of the dead are not only with us but are sometimes visible— in fact, one benevolent spirit repeatedly cautions the protagonist, Nathe Watson, to give up his plans for revenge. He does this while the two (mortal and spirit) are sharing coffee and stew by a campfire.
The “spirit” (named Amps) also has a habit of “hoiking and spiting” that I found endearing. Occasionally, the author describes aspects of the weather in order to add atmosphere, but when the protagonist describes a water mocassin swimming in the icy waters of a winter creek, I must note that I have never seen a snake in winter, much less swimming in an icy creek.
As for the details of the Hooper-Watson massacre, the author gives one of the most credible accounts. The two families had lived together along the Tuckasegee River for a century prior to the Civil War. However, with the coming of strife, animosity developed largely due to the fact that the Hooper family, which had an allegiance to the Confederacy, owned and operated a large and highly profitable lead mine. The conflict between the two families erupted in 1863.
Allegedly, a band of drunken Hoopers broke into a Watson home and murdered three Watson brothers. Accounts differ on the number of victims, but Ann Robbins-Phillips’ version includes a brutalized wife and a raped and brutalized daughter who later died. An additional raped and brutalized 12-year-old cousin of the family was left brain-damaged and later wandered into the woods and “never returned.” The three male corpses were disemboweled, castrated and beheaded. Two of the heads were mounted on stakes near the Hooper home near the Tuckasegee River. The third head was never found.
The single survivor of the massacre was a 12-year-old boy named Leander who escaped through a window and found his way to a neighbor’s home. Since he was being sought by the killers (he was the only credible witness), Leander was allegedly smuggled out of Jackson County and sent to live with relatives in Tennessee. In Revenge, it is here, a decade later, that the sole survivor chooses to return to Jackson County to bring justice/revenge to the people who murdered his family. He intends to kill them all. His name is Nathe Watson.
Nathe’s road to justice is long and daunting. Along the way, he encounters some bitter knowledge regarding his own family and befriends a young widow who teaches him much about justice and forgiveness, loss and redemption. Be forewarned that there is an excess of grief in Revenge, and at times the emotional atmosphere (especially attending the death of children) becomes excessively sentimental and maudlin (it even has music) ... much like that wonderful old ballad sung by a child on its deathbed, “Put my Little Shoes Away,”... yet, I have have heard a dozen folks vow that this is the best book they ever read.
Anyone desiring to do additional research, I refer you to the late Rev. Walter Middleton’s Trouble at the Forks. Then, there is a peculiar book by S. Van Epps Law entitled Status Quo. (The author illustrated the book herself and I especially liked the hand-drawn photos of the murdered Watsons.