The Saints of Swallow Hill

Written by Donna Everhart
Review by Sarah Johnson

This novel is a terrific find—an engrossing example of Southern historical fiction that’s full of gritty realism, heart, and hope. Everhart introduces readers to the rarely-encountered setting of the pine forests near Valdosta, Georgia during the Depression, in the company of three people seeking a way out of their troubles.

Del Reese, a traveling farmhand who’s good-looking and knows it, juggles affairs with three married women until one farmer catches him with his wife and takes revenge. Rae Lynn Cobb has been happy with her older husband, Warren, with whom she runs a small North Carolina turpentine farm, until Warren’s clumsiness and stubbornness lead to a terrible accident and a moral dilemma. Both she and Del are drawn separately to the large Swallow Hill turpentine camp down in southern Georgia, where longleaf pines are tapped for their gum.

Their presence arouses curiosity. The woods rider supervising the camp, a cruel fellow named Crow, enforces the color line and disapproves of Del taking on work designated for Black men. Having disguised herself as a young man called Ray, Rae Lynn can’t keep up with the others and has trouble making quota; that and her scrappy attitude get her in hot water. (She makes a puzzling mistake in using the call name “Tar Heel” for her work while wanting to conceal her origins.) Then there’s Cornelia, the local commissary’s abused wife. It’s clear she needs rescuing.

The three characters elicit sympathy with their yearnings for something more; Swallow Hill is a nasty place run by mostly nasty people, though the villains aren’t stereotyped. With the intense summer heat, the rich scent of evergreens, and the hum of cicadas filling the air, the atmosphere rises off the page, and the folksy Southern-accented dialogue invites the reader in.