Hemlock Hollow

Written by Culley Holderfield
Review by Fiona Alison

Shortly after her father’s death, Caroline McAlister returns to the disused family cabin in the Carolina mountains where her happiest childhood memories reside. Among her parents’ possessions is a journal written by Carson Quinn, beginning in 1886, from age 13 through his school years until 1890. While the contractor rebuilds her cabin, Caroline, an archeoastronomy researcher, does what she does best, drawn by the mystery of whether the stories about Carson are true. What she finds is startling.

Far from the rough mountain hillbilly she expects, Carson comes from an educated family. His grandfather, Aurelius, a lawyer for 30 years and a wealth of information, reprimands his grandson’s misdeeds not with corporal punishment, but with lessons from Emerson and Socrates. The erudite Carson, inspired with a wanderlust and thirst for knowledge, memorizes the scientific Latin names of plants, mammals, reptiles, trees, and rocks. At age 14, he falls in love with Marinda Fallon, but his return home from his last school term finds his life course altered completely. Has Caroline’s cabin, originally built for Marinda, borne witness to a terrible injustice a century ago?

Holderfield shows a keen understanding of humanity, able to redeem even the most unpleasant of his characters. The mountainous surroundings of the hemlock and laurel hollow become a living, breathing personality. My one reservation in this engrossing read is that Carson’s journal is not typical, the interludes about his life more befitting a straightforward dual-timeline novel. That said, this is an exceptional generational family tale, the majestic and eerie beauty of the mountain landscape telling of rebirth and revival, in which Carson’s journal resurrects his historical narrative, while Caroline resurrects her cabin and her memories. Holderfield weaves a poignant coming-of-age story of childhood, family and first love, in a country still reverberating with echoes of war. A deeply moving novel with timeless appeal.