Washed in the Blood

Written by Lisa Alther

I’d only vaguely heard of the Melungeons before reading Washed in the Blood. Lisa Alther has brought this mysterious Appalachian race out of the shadows with her excellent novel.  This multigenerational story depicts the coming-together of the Melungeons, or Porterghee Indians. She introduces us to Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors in search of treasure, Cherokees defending their land, escaped African slaves, and Englishmen searching for new homes.  Their descendants live in the Shenandoah Valley, calling the disputed area the Squabble State.  It is not always hospitable, and such places as Hunger Mountain mark where settlers lost their battle with the elements.

Racial tension also makes life difficult.  Will Martin is a young doctor who received his education in return for practicing in his state after World War I.  His skin is not fair enough to let him pass for white, even though he has had the extra fingers removed which mark him as one of the mixed-blood folk.  His fair-skinned wife, Galicia, is also his cousin.

The Martins are generally accepted by their community, but then Will reads about a “Secret Negro” who is lynched for raping a white woman, though they were married.  That man’s skin and features were little different from Will’s own.  Will now questions his own identity.  White?  Black?  And what of Will and Galicia’s unborn baby?  It is a roll of the genetic dice for them.  If that child is born dark, they could be forced from their home or worse.  Ms. Alther handles Will and Galicia’s dilemma with sensitivity, and her story grabbed me from the first sentence.  Highly recommended.