Washed in the Blood is the very best kind of novel -- one that's been painstakingly researched from the inside out. Founded on a quest for her own ancestors, Lisa Alther builds on material presented in her memoir, KINFOLKS, to create a totally compelling page-turner. The result is a masterpiece of modern fiction, one inspired by the fascinating realities of early racial mixing in America's south. It's a book that stays with you, gets under your skin, and seeps into the very marrow of your bones."
- Tahir Shah
Author of The Caliph's House
As a lifelong Virginian and avid reader, I have never enjoyed a book about Virginia history with the scope and passion of Lisa Alther’s new novel Washed in the Blood. Author of five bestselling novels before writing her first nonfiction book in 2007, Alther returns to fiction with a multigenerational family saga set primarily in the mountains along the Virginia/North Carolina border. (read the full review here)
- K. Paul Johnson
former director of Halifax County
South Boston Regional Library
Washed in the Blood will draw you in. The times when life was precarious for people of mixed ancestry are touchable through the characters and the stories. You share their struggles, and their fears make your gut twist. A great read! Washed in the Blood is Alther's best Appalachia novel-rich, measured, insightful, poignant.
- Katherine Vande Brake
Author of How They Shine and Through the Back Door
July 29, 2011
Lisa Alther has applied her storytelling prowess to the mysteries and legends surrounding the European settlement of America and the “mysterious” populations of the southeastern United States. Meticulous research, combined with Alther's insight, make Washed in the Blood a work of fiction based on an historically plausible set of circumstances. Her sense of character brings to life the legends that have been a vital part of many Southern families' histories.
- Wayne Winkler
Author of Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia
July 29, 2011
A feat of historical imagination, Washed in the Blood explores the fascinating racial heritage of Appalachia with profound humanity. Alther's unforgettable characters live and breathe and persevere, embracing a world that would deny their existence. Read this book for an intimate family saga and a stirring American epic.
- Daniel J. Sharfstein
Author of The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White
August 7, 2011
Washed in the Blood is an intelligent and insightful novel that traces the history of the often troubled peoples of Appalachia with sensitivity but without sentimentality. Her story and the characters that inhabit it came alive for me from the first page. Alther is an important voice in the fiction of Appalachia, and her keen insights into the culture and history of the people of Appalachia are a welcome addition to the literature of the region and beyond.
- Kimberley M. Holloway
Author of From a Race of Storytellers: The Ballad Novels of Sharyn McCrumb
July 30, 2011
In Washed in the Blood, Lisa Alther tells a sweeping tale of racial and familial ambiguity (click here for review)
- Paul V. Griffith
Alther's Washed in the Blood Chronicles Four Centuries of Melungeon History
Washed in the Blood is the latest novel by Kingsport native Lisa Alther. Set in the American Southeast in the area the Spanish called La Florida, the novel begins in 1567 and ends in the mid-twentieth century. Although the term Melungeon is never mentioned, Alther is telling her version of the Melungeon story-when and why the offshore European elements came to North America with the Spanish conquistadors, how the mixing of Spanish, Portuguese, African, Native American people could have occurred, and what happened to these people of mixed ancestry as the United States took shape.
The evidence of thorough research of the known details marks this novel unique among the many stories with Melungeon characters written by authors ranging from Kentucky's Jesse Stuart to Big Stone Gap's favorite daughter, Adriana Trigiani. The Melungeons have fascinated storytellers for more than a century; most of these novelists base their characters and plot turns on one printed article or book. However, Alther weaves the growing body of Melungeon scholarship and elements from the popular press together seamlessly into the lives and loves of three winsome young heros-Diego, Daniel, and Will.
Alther portrays three time periods-1567, when the Spanish lusted for the yellow metals and tried to conquer the native peoples; 1837-38, when the Cherokees of Appalachia walked the Trail of Tears; and early twentieth century, when irrational functionaries in Virginia used the term eugenics to hide their racial bigotry and attempted to draw a firm color line to classify all people as either "colored" or white. Other important historical events like the Spanish Inquisition, the Battle of King's Mountain, and the ravages of the War Between the States as played out in Appalachia are woven into the reader's awareness through stories the characters tell.
Two themes and a narrative strategy tie the novel together. The strategy is the way Alther chooses to tell her stories. Readers experience events, people, and colliding value systems through the perceptions of three young men each of whom is thrust into new situations that challenge things they thought they knew about themselves and how the world works.
Diego, hog drover for the Spanish exploring party is left behind at fort in the interior and in his disappointment learns that he never could have returned to Galicia, the area in Spain where he grew up, because his parents were Jews and had been burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisitors. His life in the New World with the African girl he bought from the man who sold her services and the Native Americans whose view of women as equals in wisdom and value stretches before him as the 1567 section of the novel closes.
Daniel Hunter, an idealistic Quaker missionary who starts a backwoods school in 1837, discovers that life in Appalachia is not as simple as his Philadelphia upbringing had led him to believe. He confronts ugly realities of bounty hunters chasing fugitive slaves, the heartbreak of the Cherokee removal from the mountains, the injustice of land grabbers with paper deeds who steal from the illiterate racially mixed "owners" of the land for centuries. Violence is necessary to insure rudimentary order. The Quaker platitudes of "fighting evil with good" and "turning the other cheek" lack utility in his new world.
Will Martin, with six fingers on each hand, grew up on Mulatto Bald. He knows the stories of Porterghee Indians from his grandmother and experiences prejudice of the town kids as he is growing up. But his real wake-up call is being thrown off a city bus for being "colored" when he is a medical student in Virginia. His rise to respectability as a physician in Holston, Tennessee, (loosely disguised depiction of Kingsport) is jeopardized when his illegitimate son comes to town needing shelter and nurture. Will lives in fear that someone will discover his past and tell him once again that he is not white enough.
The first of the two themes is a magnificent ruby. Diego's Uncle Lucas has carried the pendant on its gold chain in a leather pouch for months. He gives it to Diego along with of the story of Diego's real parentage. He tells Diego "This was your mother's ruby." The ruby on its gold chain, "a jagged black pebble with dull reddish veins," shows up in every section of the novel, passed down to girls named Galicia in the Appalachian Martin family. Galicia Hunter, granddaughter of Galicia Martin (1837) marries Will Martin (1911), and treasures the stone. This contemporary Galicia puzzles over both her first name and the jewel's origin, "[S]he liked it all the same. It made her feel connected to those unknown ancestors." Galicia Hunter does not know much about the ancestors, but readers do; and the resulting tension adds to the pleasure.
Galicia and Will illustrate the second prominent theme, that of close relatives marrying each other. Some characters in the stories know they are related. Some do not. The six fingers persist as evidence of the too-close blood kinships. This theme resurfaces in the final pages; telling exactly how would spoil the book for readers.
Washed in the Blood could be Alther's best Appalachian novel-rich, measured, insightful, and poignant. It is guaranteed to draw you in. The times when life was precarious for people of mixed ancestry are touchable through the characters and their stories. You share their struggles, and their fears make your gut twist. This book is a great read!
- Katherine Vande Brake is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at King College in Bristol, Tennessee, where she has taught English and Technical Communication since 1980. She researches Melungeons, focusing on their present--depiction in fiction, literacy, and Internet presence--rather than origins or history. Raised and educated in Michigan, Vande Brake lives and works in Appalachia celebrating regional culture and traditions. Her study of Melungeon characters in Appalachian fiction called How They Shine was published in 2001. A second book Through the Back Door: Melungeon Literacies and Twenty-first Century Technologies came out in 2009.