In rural southern Appalachia, there’s plenty of friction from distrust of outsiders and city folk. Author Pepper Basham brought some of that to life in Laurel’s Dream, reviewed on December 7.
But regardless of outsiders, family feuds sizzle within many communities. One of those feuds led to the 1912 Hillsville Courthouse Massacre of Carroll County, Virginia in the Blue Ridge foothills.
Part of this sordid tale took place in Fancy Gap. Which just happens to be Pepper’s hometown.
Pepper grew up hearing stories about the nationally-known massacre. In 2020 she had the opportunity to write about it as part of the True Colors Crime series. Even now, controversy exists, descendants of the original players still care about it, and questions still percolate over who fired the first shot. All of this Pepper maneuvered through while carefully crafting the story found in The Red Ribbon.
The twelve-book True Colors series is based on historical crimes in America, all presented as historical fiction, with romance thrown in for good measure. Good old historical romantic suspense.
Here’s a sampling of the settings and crimes:
- 1) The White City, by Grace Hitchcock — Chicago’s World Fair, 1893: will an abducted woman become H.H.Holme’s next victim?
- 2) The Pink Bonnet, by Liz Tolsma — What happens to the children who are taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in 1932?
- 3) The Yellow Lantern, by Angie Dicken– In Massachusetts, 1824, a doctor doubles as a body snatcher.
- 4) The Gray Chamber, by Grace Hitchcock — In 1887, a woman patient finds herself in New York’s disreputable Blackwell’s Island lunatic asylum alongside Nellie Bly, the undercover journalist who plans to expose all.
- 5) The Blue Cloak, by Shannon McNear — A wedding turns murder scene in 1797 Tennessee.
- 6) The Green Dress, by Liz Tolsma — Mysterious illnesses and deaths plague one particular family in 1882 Boston.
- 7) The Black Midnight, by Kathleen Y’Barbo — The Midnight Assassin in Austin, Texas is linked to Jack the Ripper in London, 1885 -1888.
- 8) The Red Ribbon, by Pepper Basham — Rivalry in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains culimates in the 1912 Hillsville Courthouse Massacre.
- 9) The Gold Digger, by Liz Tolsma — The suspicious activities of a Norwegian immigrant’s sister raises eyebrows on an Indiana farm in 1907.
- 10) The Purple Nightgown, by A.D. Lawrence — The dark side of the Washington state spa in 1912 is alive and well, while its guests get sicker and weaker.
- 11) The Silver Shadow, by Liz Tolsma — In 1900, seven years after Denver’s silver crash, two women are attacked by an unknown assailant who may have more mayhem up his sleeve.
- 12) The Scarlet Pen, by Jennifer Uhlarik — In Ohio, 1876, a woman’s fiance is linked to several murders in Nebraska.
Romantic suspense isn’t my usual genre, but after reading The Pink Bonnet and The Red Ribbon, I was hooked. I’ve only read two, but as a Nellie Bly fan, my next book destination will be The Gray Chamber.
Though these tales are a blend of fact and fiction, including real people and conjured-up characters, they place you directly into the time period and tragedy of each event. Suspense galore–tempered with a twist of much-needed romance to get you through the tough stuff.
From Amazon page
An Appalachian Feud Blows Up in 1912
Step into True Colors — a series of Historical Stories of Romance and American Crime
In Carroll County, a corn shucking is the social event of the season, until a mischievous kiss leads to one of the biggest tragedies in Virginia history. Ava Burcham isn’t your typical Blue Ridge Mountain girl. She has a bad habit of courtin’ trouble, and her curiosity has opened a rift in the middle of a feud between politicians and would-be outlaws, the Allen family. Ava’s tenacious desire to find a story worth reporting may land her and her best friend, Jeremiah Sutphin, into more trouble than either of them planned. The end result? The Hillsville Courthouse Massacre of 1912.
Warning: I about had a panic attack when I saw the crazy long cast of characters at the beginning of the book. No way would I be able to keep track of everybody!
But once the story was underway, I breathed a sigh of relief. Fortunately, characters only showed up one or two at a time, or a few in a manageable manner. I only referenced the gigantic, long list a handful of times.
However, that sigh of relief didn’t last long. Danger follows headstrong Ava while she’s determined to find and write a worthy news story to expose instigators of local crimes and corruption. Ever since her father was caught in the crosshairs of moonshiners, she wants to nab wrongdoers and bring them to justice. Her weapon is her words written under a pseudonym.
After her father’s murder, Ava’s mother and brother died, too, leaving her orphaned at age twelve. When Mr. and Mrs. Temple took her in, Mrs. Temple taught her how to sew. Ava works at the Temples’ alterations shop in Fancy Gap.
Scenes alternate between Ava and Jeremiah Sutphin’s point of view. Jeremiah, a carpenter, has been her best friend since childhood. Now he’s sweet on her, quite clear about his intentions. But she must resist in order to avoid hurting him–a fear rooted in a deeper fear of possibly inheriting her mother’s madness.
Jeremiah’s father had been a deputy killed in the line of duty. Jeremiah adheres to his father’s advice: “Keep your head steady, your eyes open, and your heart true.” He challenges Ava to make a difference in folks’ lives without getting in harm’s way.
Granny Burcham is Ava’s only living relative. A recluse on the mountain, Granny’s wise and humorous insights bolster Ava with each visit.
Then there are the Allens and the Edwards and their clan. Another group hailed as the Courthouse Clan consists of sheriffs, deputies, and the county clerk. In addition, lewd and brash Keen Gentry accuses Ava of having bad blood.
With moonshining, rivalry, and blockade liquor running, there’s no lack of danger. Disapproving of Ava’s attempts to catch the bad guys, Jeremiah warns her to stay clear.
That’s even before they learn Solomon Dunn was killed four nights prior–the same night she and Jeremiah were riding home from town in the dark.
She wonders about a connection between that killing and her father’s death eight years prior. Memories of that horrible night assail her from time to time, pushing her to press forward in discovering the culprit. Besides, she wants to be known for something other than sewing, making recipes, and tying ribbons in young girls’ hair.
Corn shucking is a recurring theme for author Pepper Basham. That joyful event plays a crucial part in both Laurel’s Dream and The Red Ribbon. In this case, it’s the impetus that sets the impending disaster in motion.
Ava shows up with a red ribbon in her hair. Jeremiah is the first red-ear winner and gets to kiss the girl of his choice. But there’s no time to relish romance and whimsy when Wesley Edwards of the Allen crew kisses Rebekah, Will Thomas’s girl.
The next few weeks unfold at a heart-rending pace and involve a brawl in the churchyard, a suspicious suicide, creditors coming to call, attempted escapes over the state line, and a shot fired outside the Allens’ store.
Such confusion! As Granny Burcham says, “The good and the bad get so mixed together you can’t tell them from a peeled turnip in a peeled potato pile.”
It all leads up to the courthouse trial tragedy.
In the aftermath, Jeremiah and Ava are caught in the middle. Each hour the stakes rise.
Facing quandary after quandary, Jeremiah wonders, “Why did searching for the truth often end up as a trade-off of your life?”
Join me for some Q & A with Pepper Basham
Questions about The Red Ribbon:
You have a personal connection to this story since you were raised in Carroll County, Virginia–the setting for The Red Ribbon. Of course there are decades in between 1912 and your birth, but how would you describe the Carroll County you grew up in? Other than the obvious technological advances, how is it the same or different from 1912? Does anybody still have corn shuckings?
Pepper: I think that history still resides in a lot of folks’ minds in Carroll County. We are really “close” to our history because we talk about it and a lot of folks still carry those stories with them, so in that respect, I believe that we still hold to those. The culture has some things that “feel” the same, as far as a slower pace and the closeness of community. I’m not sure if folks still have corn shuckings. LOL. I know we all still have “get togethers”, which is what I’ll attend for holidays.
While growing up, what were some of the tales you heard of concerning this 1912 event? How much of that was true or false when you started digging into the research?
Pepper: I learned a LOT about the story while researching for the book, but the only things I remember hearing about were the fact that the Allens had caused the shooting. The funny thing was is that I always hear the Allens’ house (which still stands) was haunted because of deaths that took place in it, but also that there were secret tunnels beneath the house that led out to the mountains. Neither of those rumors were true! The “assumption” lots of times when folks would talk about the Courthouse Tragedy was that the Allens were just unintelligent and lawless moonshiners, but I loved learning about how the Allens were actually more learned than your average person and had held high rank in the local government on several occasions.
What are the challenges of retelling the true story of the Hillsville Courthouse Massacre in a fictionalized tale? What parameters did you have imposed on you?
Pepper: Well, the timeline was tricky AND trying to walk a VERY FINE LINE for those in my hometown who still feel very strongly about one side or the other. My family still lives in Carroll County, so I wanted to be careful to portray the story as close to neutral as I could and even “created” my REALLY bad guys. There is so much speculation in the true story that I wanted to be careful about how far onto one side or the other I went.
What was the inspiration for your fictional characters Ava Burcham and Jeremiah Sutphin and others? Did you consider other protagonists or connections to the massacre before settling on Ava and Jeremiah as main characters?
Pepper: From the very beginning, I wanted to create a “hopeful” story thread because, after researching the true story, I realized I needed to pair the truth with something that gave hope. The true story doesn’t end with a happy ending. It’s sad and broken, and life is often that way, but as Christians, we live as people of hope! That’s where Ava and Jeremiah came from. Also, since so many folks back home are descendants of those involved in the true story, I wanted to (again) not make assumptions about how those people would have responded and, therefore, came up with my own characters that I could have respond in a realistic way within the “true” story.
How do you plot out a story that integrates fact and fiction, especially if you’re trying to be faithful to the facts you know, yet have to fill in the gaps with your imagination?
Pepper: Very carefully! LOL. It’s really a mixture of being easier in some respects and harder in others. Because I already had a timeline I had to follow, that made some of the story plotting easier!! But ALSO because I already had a timeline to follow, it made weaving Jeremiah and Ava’s story tricky in order to FIT as well as work well.
Since this story was based on a true event, how did writing it compare to anything you’ve written before? In other words, do you usually have more leeway with historical context or have you previously written about actual events, with characters at the heart of them?
Pepper: Yes, usually I have more leeway with historical context, so it created this tension while writing that I hadn’t experienced before. Part of that may have been because I really wanted to honor my hometown! The other part was that, to be true to the historical details, I had to carefully work the fiction details in. That was NOT easy. Interesting, but not easy 🙂
This story is part of a crime series called True Colors. Were you assigned the color and/or title or just the event to write about? Can you explain how the title came about (without any spoiler alerts)?
Pepper: I actually proposed the story and since a ‘red ear of corn’ was in the story, they thought I could stick with the color red. Titles such as The Red Ear (awful, I know), and The Red Horizon came first, but neither worked. Then, when I started thinking of various ways to incorporate the color into the story, The Red Ribbon emerged and stuck!
Thanks so much for having me again, Laura. I don’t usually write such intense books (as far as suspense) so this was definitely new to me. I feel like I needed a massage after finishing the book because my body had been so tense while writing the last bit of the story! LOL
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy the setting of The Red Ribbon, you might enjoy my recently re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, with the same southern Appalachian locale 56 years later (1968). Instead of Virginia, it’s western North Carolina. Instead of local clans feuding, northern exploitation clashes with southern small town values as a father’s secret is gradually unleashed. I wrote about the inspiration for it last time. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
Pepper Basham’s Bio
Pepper Basham is an award-winning author who writes romance “peppered” with grace and humor. Writing both historical and contemporary novels, she loves to incorporate her native Appalachian culture and/or her unabashed adoration of the UK into her stories. She currently resides in the lovely mountains of Asheville, NC where she is the wife of a fantastic pastor, mom of five great kids, a speech-language pathologist, and a lover of chocolate, jazz, hats, and Jesus. Her newest novel is The Mistletoe Countess, a historical romantic romp with a dash of mystery and a bunch of humor, too. You can learn more about Pepper and her books on her website and on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.
Join me next time as we explore another True Color novel by author Liz Tolsma.
Meanwhile, feel free to comment below. Have you read The Red Ribbon? What true stories or legends does your own town have? Have you ever tried to dig into such a story to learn the truth?