Author's Love for Subject Shows in Every Line
Washed in the Blood
By Lisa Alther
Mercer University Press, $26
BY RUTH MOOSE
Special to The Pilot
Who knows where a DNA test will take you?
Not sure I ever want to go here, but Lisa Alther got two books from hers - plus answers to a million questions on how she came to be and who begat whom. Maybe she even got more than she really wanted to know.
Take the word Mulungeon. I grew up hearing my mother tell my brothers anytime they had dirty or chocolate-smeared faces (just before a spit bath), they looked like Mulungeons. (I never got dirty since I was always reading instead of rolling in the grass.)
Alther grew up in Kingsport, Tenn., and heard all her life, but didn't quite know much, about the dark-skinned people who lived together in a remote region of the mountains. She heard stories, myths and tales about their origins: descendants of Desoto, Portuguese, native tribes, all. A tell-tale was the six fingers on each hand.
In her DNA search, Alther found some Mulungeon along with bits of a lot of other cultures, so she wrote a memoir of her search and her findings called "Kinfolks."
At the same time she began 10 years of historical research into the settlement of the South and the Appalachians, starting with the Conquistadors. (Remember black and white drawings of those metal- plated, helmented men with spears from your history books?) I was absolutely fascinated.
Alther had me hooked for 459 pages starting in 1597, a boy and a dog aboard a sailing ship set for LaFlorida. When the dog goes overboard, I'm in for the long haul. Diego Martin is the young swineherd. (Of course the Spanish bring pigs to bred and eat. Barbecue is one of the four basic food groups.)
How this troop battles the wilderness, the native tribes and each other makes for exciting reading and good, good writing! Alther weaves in her research so carefully, builds her characters so adroitly, you walk those mountain paths, enter into this patchwork world of dark and white and in-betweens.
Lisa Alther wrote several best-selling novels before "Washed in the Blood," but this is the book of her heart. It shows in every line.
Ruth Moose is a longtime reviewer for The Pilot.
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