One People, All Colors
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/Tennessee border.
Opening in 1567 with the arrival in the New World of Diego Martin, a hog drover from Spain, Washed in the Blood follows his descendants into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, concluding in 1930 in Couchtown, Virginia. This fictional community was founded by Melungeons—a real ethnic minority in Appalachia that was the subject of Alther’s nonfiction book, Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree. Contemporary DNA studies show Melungeons to have a mixture of European, African and Native American ancestry, as well as possible Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Roma origins. Alther travels back in time showing how the ethnic diversity of sixteenth century Virginia and Carolina is gradually codified in three distinct races, white, black, and Indian, leaving people of mixed ancestry in a no-man’s land of social ostracism and geographical isolation.
In Book I, Diego Martin’s odyssey in the new world is a colorful adventure story, taking us from Santo Domingo to the South Carolina coast and then inland to the Appalachians in the company of a Spanish exploration party. This portion is engaging reading based on many years of careful research on Native American history, as well as that of the Spanish and English settlers in the Appalachians. Book II finds Diego’s descendants in the early nineteenth century as impoverished and marginalized Melungeons driven off their land by rapacious white settlers. Its hero is a Quaker schoolteacher from Philadelphia who comes to southwest Virginia to bring knowledge to the uncivilized ruffians of the mountains, and unexpectedly finds love and community. Book III finds the Martin clan now divided between white educated townfolk and swarthy distant cousins living on the Ridge. It depicts the legal stigmatization of people of mixed ancestry by the state of Virginia beginning in the 1920s, under the Racial Integrity Act that defined them as “mongrels.”
Washed in the Blood succeeds beautifully as a novel, with vivid characters and telling anecdotes that stay with the reader long after finishing the book. But its tripartite multigenerational format also reveals history in a way that will be valuable even to readers who rarely turn to fiction. Genealogists use the term “brick wall” to describe ancestors who are the furthest one can get along any particular line. Millions of Americans now classified as white, black, and Indian can trace their ancestry down a paper trail that leads to “free people of color” and “mulattoes.” But there the trail always seems to end. Alther’s Book One represents a leap over that “brick wall” to sixteenth century America, an imaginative reconstruction of the world in which Spanish, Jewish, African, and Native American genes began the recombination that ultimately leads to today’s Melungeons and dozens of other mixed ancestry communities. Books Two and Three of Washed in the Blood depict stages of their experience in Appalachia, and their changing relationship with white society. Any history lover in western Virginia will love this book. And when you have fallen in love with Alther’s way of making history an adventure, take pleasure in the fact that she is now working on a book about the Hatfields and McCoys-- KPJ