Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys:
The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance
by Lisa Alther
"We humans don't automatically know who we are. It takes time and experience to figure that out. Young people typically try on the roles their culture offers them to see if one will fit, like an off-the-rack Halloween costume. A few people have the courage to try on mutiple costumes and cast aside those that don't appeal to them. Stripped they are then free to find their true identities from within. But most take the easier route of sticking with a prepackaged identity." (p 230)
Lisa Alther is an excellent storyteller. This is evidenced by her several successful novels. It is her storytelling ability that makes Blood Feud a pleasure to read. Notably, the subtitle for the book includes the words "Epic Story" as a sign of what the reader should expect. The epic story is just that although it takes less than half the book to tell it. After the conclusion of the story of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys the book continues to expand upon the feud. There is a short discussion of the subsequent history of the two families followed by stories of similar feuds that, while sometimes even more violent, did not receive the attention given to the Hatfields and the McCoys. The author does not end there but continues with some psychologizing about the possible reasons for the violent behavior of these particular clans and adds a chapter on her personal family history that is indirectly connected to the main story.
Like most people I had a limited awareness of the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys before reading this book. In it I learned about many interesting details throughout the story that suggested this was a complex saga rather than a simple tale of revenge. Lisa Alther puts her storytelling abilities to good use to expand upon the limited evidence that exists about the feud. For this story was one in which many of the participants were near-illiterates at best and the closest chroniclers were often tainted by family connections to one or the other side in the feud. The author sorts this out in a way that provides some clarity; however it does not raise the storytelling to the level of history. The additional material contains interesting speculation about the sources and psychology of the feud. But this material also demonstrates the authors own bias from her vantage point in the twenty-first century. The result is a great story with added commentary that, for this reader, raised my skepticism about the apparent objectivity of the author. Perhaps that is a good thing for anyone reading fictional non-fiction.
Blood Feud by Lisa Alther. Lyons Press, 2012.