I love a story that can teach. Lisa Alther’s Washed in the Blood presents readers with three affecting stories, each one tracing the history of Appalachia and the racially-mixed Melungeon people who subsisted and endured there from America’s earliest existence. Her stories are personal and small, and yet, encompass the vast historical lineage of a largely misunderstood group of ethnically diverse people, who have lived in the Appalachian cradle of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee since the Spanish Conquistadors first came to American shores.
In it’s first part, “The Swine King,” Alther introduces us to Diego, a hog drover from Spain, part of a 1567 expedition, intent on following De Soto’s trail on a quest for gold in La Florida, as the area was called in those early days. Diego pines to return to his home in Galicia, though he is fascinated by the Native Americans who live in this stunningly beautiful place. Diego’s leaders are interested only in mining the supposedly abundant riches of gold, which the Indians always promise are just over the next mountain top, in an effort to get rid of these Spanish marauders who have no problem taking both the lives and the livelihoods of the local inhabitants. The Spanish bring both life and death, as they impregnate the local women and the African slaves they have brought with them and Smallpox often decimates entire tribes and villages in the Spanish wake. When Diego is abandoned by his troop, he and a pregnant African slave are taken in and sheltered by a group of Indians that have already assimilated with Africans abandoned by previous expeditions and shunned for the resulting, unusual-looking offspring, some of whom have an extra thumb on each hand. Through Diego, Alther tells a story that illustrates the presumed beginnings of the Melungeon people.
“The Squabble State” revolves around Daniel Hunter, a Quaker from Philadelphia, who comes to Appalachia to set up a school in Couchtown for the disadvantaged children of the locals, who are sometimes referred to as porterghee indians. Daniel finds himself falling for a local girl, Galicia Martin, whom we can assume is a descendant of Diego and his Native American wife. To his dismay, Daniel quickly becomes involved in local squabbles with the northern bounty hunters who know the area is a haven for escaped slaves. In this backwoods area, racial identity runs on a sliding scale and even siblings and cousins from the same family might range from very pale to deeply complected skin, with black hair and piercing blue eyes. Everyone who can, claims white ancestry, and failing that, Indian. We begin to see the wonderful melange of genetic possibility, and when Daniel and Galicia marry, a new hereditary line is added to the stew.
In the final part, we have moved on to the early twentieth century and are introduced to Galicia Hunter, pale and light-haired, living with her parents in Daniel’s former home. They consider themselves, as descendants of Daniel Hunter, to be part of privileged, upper-middle class society in an increasingly divided Couchtown. Will Martin, dark-skinned, with piercing blue eyes and an extra thumb on each hand, hails from the poorer side of the Martin clan and lives on Mulatto Bald, where families struggle to survive on subsistence farming and live in shacks where the chinks have been filled with newspaper to keep out the cold. As you might suspect, Will and Galicia meet and fall in love, never suspecting they are cousins. They marry, to the dismay of both sets of parents and move to the city, where Will studies to become a doctor and Galicia goes to teacher college. They are the first in both families to get a higher education and are exceptionally proud of their ability to move up in society in a way that had never been possible before. We follow Will and Galicia into their marriage and the birth of their daughter, Hunter. While Galicia is pregnant, Will takes a job in Tennessee as they fear their daughter may be born with dark skin and miscegenation laws were strongly enforced and lynchings were common. The story comes around beautifully as Galicia becomes ever more society conscious and embellishes her family history with tales of imagined Tidewater Virginia roots and Mayflower ancestors. Will, on the other hand, must continually deal with his racially ambiguous appearance and is shocked when in medical school he is asked to move to a “colored” trolley car more than once. His past comes back to haunt him when a son from a teenaged relationship appears and he must decide whether to acknowledge the dark-skinned child as his. You might correctly guess that once again, fate throws a new generation together.
I really enjoyed reading Washed in the Blood; the characters are interesting and fully fleshed-out and Alther weaves in American history with a deft touch and gives readers touchstones that remind us that society is a complicated thing. I never felt that historical events were dropped in simply as markers, but to frame the three stories to give them weight and honesty. Alther didn’t shy away from painting a picture that could be harsh and yet remarkably positive. The existence of the Melungeons stands as a case for human rights for all races and types and I was fascinated that an area of the US that is often considered one of the most historically racist is surprisingly, one of the most racially mixed and diverse. Perhaps, it’s not so surprising considering the amount of justifying and obfuscating that had to be done over the centuries, to satisfy strict color lines that for the most part, still exist today.
Note: I first heard about Washed in the Blood when I listened to this interview with Alther on NC Public Radio. She reads a passage from a chapter in the second part, called “The Five Chicken Baby” and talks about her long-running interest in the Melungeons and their history in her native state of Tennessee. It’s worth a listen.