Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Hemlock Hollow

 Hemlock Hollow (2022) by Culley Holderfield

When Caroline McAlister was young, her family would spend summers at their cabin in Hemlock Hollow. It was her mother's special place--she loved the mountains of Carolina. Late one night, when Caroline had two of her friends staying with her, she saw a figure standing at the end of the bed. He was a tall, sad-faced man in brown with a hat. She never quite knew for sure what she'd seen and she wasn't sure she believed in ghosts, but the memory stuck with her. Not long after that incident, her beloved mother died of cancer and she, her brother, and her father stopped coming to the cabin.

Years later, Caroline is college professor whose life seems to be coming apart. Her father has now died, her marriage has come to an end, and research for a new book has stalled. When she learns that her dad still owned that cabin in Hemlock Hollow and had left it to her, she goes to check it out. After years of disuse (and abuse from random squatters and "hippies") it is in desperate need of renovation and she hires Micah, a local general contractor, to oversee the job. There are still treasures among the clutter and debris--including a curio cabinet where Caroline would store her "archeological" finds (a professor in the making), some of the more practical furniture (a bed, a table, etc.), her grandmother's quilt, and...a metal box that Caroline has never seen before.

The box contains a journal written by Carson Quinn in the late 1800s. Quinn was suspected (but never arrested or tried) of the murder of his older brother, Thomas. The young men had grown up smitten with the same girl, but Thomas was the one she married. Because there were other suspects and no real proof, the murder was never solved. Caroline suspects that the sad-faced man who visited her that night long ago was Carson. As she begins reading the journal, she finds an intelligent, curious young man with a deep love of the natural world and especially the place called Hemlock Hollow. She finds it difficult to believe that the same young man who wrote this journal could be a killer and decides to investigate. The case may be cold, but her research skills are used to investigating the past. But the answer may not be as simple as she'd like.

This novel is a lovely mix of fact and fiction. Holderfield builds on the historical facts of life in the Carolinas in the troubled years after the Civil War and includes a rich mixture of characters that reflect the conflicted views of Southerners during the period. The Quinn family had a set of values that didn't always mesh with those of their neighbors, but for the most part they each, in their own way, stayed true to them. I loved the characters of Gramps, Carson's mother, and Carson. They are fully realized in Carson's journal and come to life as Caroline learns about the events that led up to the murder. Hemlock Hollow is just as much a character as these folks with the presence of the mountains and the trees and the secluded spots that Carson, his mother, Caroline, and her mother all love influencing events as much as the people do. And when Caroline finds that they will need to remove some of the trees sheltering the cabin (due to an insect infestation), the sudden sunshine falling on the cabin seems to indicate that the mystery is clearing and soon all will be revealed.

The identity of the murderer didn't come as a huge surprise to me, but Holderfield has woven such an interesting tale, told with emotional subtlety and a real sense of place, that it doesn't bother me. The detective fiction lover in me would have like Caroline to do more independent investigating and not have the solution given first in a seance with the ghost and then through one more written document from Carson (long after the journal ends), but the solution is satisfying and the story is compelling. A really nice piece of historical fiction. ★★★★

First line: The box wasn't much to look at.

In life people will say lots of things about you, some of it terrible and some of it wonderful. Cling to neither good nor bad, and you'll be fine. (Carson's mother; p. 201)

Last line: I sat back in the rocking chair and looked out over the hollow, lit differently now without the hemlocks, yet still somehow the same, ever haunted by the spirits of those who loved it and left it and returned.


Deaths = 6 (four natural; one shot)

 ~~~This book was given to me as a review copy by Regal House Publishing & Mindbuck Media in exchange for an honest review. All comments are my own and I have received no payment of any kind.

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