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A new take on murderess legend

Midwinter by Maurice Stanley. Whittler’s Bench Press, 2008. 208 pages.

North Carolina’s folklore and music resonates with the pain of doomed lovers and guilt-ridden killers: penitents who find themselves standing on a rough-hewn gallows before a silent multitude. In keeping with folk tradition, they often use their final moments for dramatic effect. “Profit from my example,” they say. “Take heed, or you, too, may try that awful road!”

Of all of the gallows confessions, none are as famous as Frankie Silver (1833). This alleged ax-murderess has inspired over a dozen novels and non-fiction treatments, several made-for-TV dramas, and a collection of bad plays and documentaries. Frankie’s notoriety is largely due to the fact that, in addition to cleaving her husband, Charlie, into pieces, she burned him in the fireplace.

Some accounts of this grisly affair have taken liberties with the facts and molded Frankie into either a courageous feminist or an innocent pawn. Over the years, the story has acquired additional layers of fanciful details, including ghosts, omens, divinations and conspiracy theories.

Maurice Stanley’s Midwinter makes use of previous treatments, including sources as diverse as True Detective Magazine, a research paper by Carolyn Sakowski and the colorful pronouncements of storyteller, Bobbie McMillon. All of the components are here: the Elkhorn Tavern (Charlie’s home away from home); the old slave from Tennessee who finds missing people by “conjuring” with a glass pendant on a string; the rumors about Charlie’s abuse of his young wife (she has multiple bruises and a black eye on the week prior to the murder); the bone fragments in the fireplace (could be teeth); Frankie’s escape from the Burke County jail and Frankie’s gallows ballad (confession?) — all familiar pieces of a story that has become an Appalachian folk legend.

What, then, is different? Is Midwinter merely the repetition of the same series of events that has been chronicled before? Well, not exactly! Stanley manages to surprise us by simply “rearranging” the order of some key events. Like the South American writer Julio Cartazar, who asks his readers to shift the order of chapters in some of his novels (thereby creating an entirely different story), Stanley skillfully creates a new version of the Frankie Silver legend — simply by utilizing a little imaginative manipulation.

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In Stanley’s novel, Frankie Silver is an independent “bookish” young woman who reads Shelley, Keats and the Bible. Although Charlie Silver is a doting husband, he is also the product of a culture that stresses the subservient role of wives (Frankie’s books infuriate him). Now, add some interfering in-laws (Frankie’s mother is mentally ill and despises her son-in-law). The final ingredient is jealousy (a young lawyer named Woodfin who adores Frankie angers Charlie and a big-bosomed Elkhorn floozie who comforts Charlie when he is feeling low produces temper tantrums in Frankie.)

Although Midwinter moves toward its tragic conclusion with a kind of predestined certainty, there are some notable variations. Stanley builds a credible explanation for Charlie’s murder: Frankie acts in self-defense since she believes that Charlie intends to shoot her. (She misinterprets his behavior when, after seeing a wolf near his barn, he rushes into the house and loads his gun.) In addition, the author expands the oft-repeated suspicions regarding Frankie’s “accomplices” (the belief that Charlie’s dismemberment and cremation was carried out by Frankie’s mother and brother). This “variation” acquires additional pathos when Stanley presents a scene in which Frankie’s brother, Blackstone, is haunted by a memory: Having left Frankie at home, her mother and brother, go to Charlie’s cabin to “make Charlie’s corpse disappear.” Charlie is still alive — but not for long.

Midwinter also presents an explanation for Frankie’s strange behavior during the interval between the murder and her execution. Stanley presents Frankie as a young woman in a near-catatonic state, haunted by nightmares, and tormented by guilt. She does nothing to avoid her fate because she feels it is deserved. When she reaches the gallows, she reads her “Sonnet for Charlie” and willingly accepts the noose.

Note: Maurice Stanley is also the author of The Legend of Nance Dude — a tale of another guilt-ridden mountain woman, trapped in a place and a culture that made her a killer. His response to the tragedy and suffering inherent in the Frankie Silver ordeal resembles an observation made by W. M. Thackeray at the conclusion of Barry Lyndon. Thackeray notes that all of the grief and pain in his story occurred “a long time ago” and all of his characters are dead and gone. Their guilt or innocence is now irrelevant.

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