This strangely constructed book starts off as historical fiction based on actual events, mixes in courtroom drama, family lore and passages that hint of travel brochure. The strongest of these segments are the first two, filled with well-told tales of fierce rivalries, plots, love affairs, and deaths, all involving characters taken from real life.
Opening in 1848, the story follows James Johnson scheming his way toward ownership of a piece of Virginia farmland he thinks his manipulative siblings have denied him. His first intrigue involves finding a wife with access to enough funds to finance his mission.
Hearing of a prospect, James hustles off. Barely introduced to his intended, he impregnates her in her father’s stable, an event secretly witnessed by 11-year-old Mollie Shreve. (“So that’s what it looks like,” she coolly observes when discovered, “My brother’s not nearly that big.”) Manipulative in her own way, Mollie has already attracted James’ attention, and their relationship dominates many pages of squalid misbehavior by James, ending with a trial for his life.
The legal maneuvers leading to the courtroom are reflected in preserved letters of increasing passion from Mollie to James and accounts from anonymous lawyers recording what they witnessed in court, all connected by fictionalized accounts of surrounding events.
This first section offers a fine picture of time and place and could, with some embellishment, stand alone as a true crime story. Unfortunately, the author adds two further sections that diminish his work’s impact.
First comes an epilogue tracing the subsequent lives of the surviving characters, followed by an account of what happened to the farm over the next century, including futile attempts to turn it into a ski resort. Both distract from the drama and mystery that begins the book.
Readers will find rewards in this story, particularly in the first part, but elimination of the extraneous final sections would lend it more appeal.
Also available in paperback format.