Off the page: ‘The Saints of Swallow Hill’

Turpentine may have been prized in the early 20th century due to its versatility as a household ingredient with perceived cure-all properties, but the process of extracting the oily, toxic resin from longleaf pines across the southern United States was hardly a spoonful of sugar. Neither were the people often tasked with gathering it during long and grueling days at sites like the titular work camp that forms the backdrop of Donna Everhart’s The Saints of Swallow Hill, where the young farmhand Del Reese finds himself stranded in the heat of the Depression, fresh on the run from a licentious lifestyle and the wrath of a former boss. Among a segregated workforce, berating overseers, and torturous punishments, no one at the camp seems especially keen to let down their defenses, let alone the newcomer “Ray,” whose true identity as the traumatized widow Rae Lynn Cobb demands a secrecy just as strong as her work ethic. And then there’s Cornelia, who suffers at the hands of her husband while working at the general store. Eventually, these three misfits come together, crafting an alliance that may just save all of their lives—even if revealing their truths risks tearing them apart.

Everhart’s upbringing in the midlands of North Carolina serves her setting well, tracing the plot between the rural outpost of Valdosta, Georgia, back to her home state, where the evergreen forests serve as both safehouse and sentry for her heroes-on-the-run. Fitting, too, is her timing—with Where the Crawdads Sing still jumping from shelves across the country, Everhart’s tale of vagabonds and thrifty young women suits that same cultural climate, and with just as much care for crafting a natural environment drenched in escapism. 

Not that Everhart shies away from the harsh realities of poverty, abuse or the social politics of the time, opting instead for a less flinching approach to Depression-era historical fiction than one might find in a typical summer read. As a result, the themes distilled through the limits of natural resources, the perils of forbidden love, and even the simple tune of a harmonica called Melody somehow find “the entire way of life in turpentining,” turning poisoned circumstances into daring possibilities.