Melungeon Book Review

Welcome to the Melungeon Book Review Page

This page provides a place to share opinions of Melungeon Literature including fiction and non-fiction works. Reviews presented are solely the opinion of the reviewer and everyone is encouraged to read and form their own opinion!


"The Hawk's Done Gone" by Mildred Haun

Reviewed by Wayne Winkler

The book is a series of short stories written from the point of view of Dorthula White, a "granny-woman" in Cocke County c. 1850-1939. The stories deal with various members of her family, many of whom perish in violent and/or supernatural ways. Melungeons are mentioned in a couple of stories, including "Melungeon Colored." This is a grisly story and reflects the racism faced by Melungeons, and the secrecy surrounding Melungeon ancestry.

I don't want to spoil the story - or the book - for anyone who might want to read it. Let me just say that the work presents a fascinating portrait of the society, religion, culture, etc. of east Tennessee in the late 19th/early 20th century. The later stories deal somewhat with the outside world influencing this isolated society. If you have roots in southern Appalachia, I'd highly recommend this book.

By the way, the title refers to a mother hen protecting her chicks, telling them the hawk is coming. When the hawk passses, she brings them out, reassuring them that "The hawk's done gone."

© Wayne Winkler, 1998, 1999. All rights reserved.

Link to Reviews of The Forgotten Portuguese: The Melungeons & Other Groups by Manuel Mira

"Sang Spell" by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Athenum 1998).

Reviewed by Katherine G. VandeBrake

SANG SPELL, a real page-turner, is a "Brigadoon" type experience that takes Josh Vardy and the reader into an eerily primitive place and time. Sixteen-year-old Josh, who is many years fatherless and has just lost his mother in a freak auto accident, is hitch-hiking his way from Boston to Dallas, where he must move in with an aunt and try to re-build his life. When it begins to rain somewhere in Appalachia, he is not choosy about a ride and is mugged by a sinister man in an old car. Soon after he comes to, a woman driving a wagon indicates that he may climb on. It's not long until he reaches a village in the hills that time truly forgot--no electricity, no motorized vehicles, and few store-bought items. The people in the village have dark copper skin, dark hair, blue eyes, and strange names...Pardo, Isobel, Sly, Mavis, Euyalia, Kaspar. Life is simple in Canara; the days are regulated by the ringing of a bell, the community takes meals in a large cookhouse, Euyalia teaches the children when the rhythm of planting, cultivating and harvesting allows leisure; and governance is by simple democracy. It is August in the mountains, and the air already has hints of cold to come. Many of the people in the village are engaged in harvesting ginseng, called 'sang, which Old Sly, Isobel, and Leone take to Chinese traders with whom they barter for the few things they cannot make for themselves or grow.

Josh tells himself that his foremost thought is escape. Pardo tells Josh that only Melungeons come to Canara--he can leave any time, but that no one knows how to show him the way. Mysteriously...magically...Josh finds that he cannot escape. What's more, the mountains seem to change positions; one day a crest is on the left, another day it is straight ahead. Mavis, a girl his age who befriends him, tells him that Canara is a place of healing, and that, when he is healed of whatever is hurting him, he will really be able to go. He has a broken rib from his mugging, but he gradually begins to realize that the hurt stemming from his mother's death is what pains him the most. He finally admits to himself that he is dreading a new school and a new life. As his body slowly heals, so does his heart. He begins to fall in love with Mavis, and he describes to her life on the outside, and they speculate about leaving together.

One other person besides Mavis overshadows Josh's time in Canara--Kaspar. Kaspar is the second most recent "recruit" in the village. In his life on the outside he had been a college student at Penn State. On a rappelling trip, he got trapped in a canyon that he couldn't climb out of and was ultimately rescued by the mute Leone. Kaspar makes no attempt to hide his anger at what he views as imprisonment by the Melungeons or his frustration at not being able to leave. He badgers Josh continuously to side with him and to try to escape. Josh plays along, but when Kaspar makes desperate plans in order to get the "the Edge," Josh really must decide what he values.

There are many intriguing echoes and innuendoes in this story. The reduction of society to subsistence level brings to mind other post-nuclear holocaust science-fiction novels. The wrinkle in time pushes the boundary between fantasy and reality. The reader wonders whether being in Canara is like being in Narnia or Lorien; does time go on as usual on the outside? Naylor builds in a sense of foreboding that certainly has Josh on edge and also makes the reader wary. Yet, at the end the tension is resolved, and we know that the physical and emotional hardships are perhaps the only way Josh can pass through the anguish of his circumstances and travel from adolescence to adulthood. Many of the pressing questions the story raises are answered by the end, but haunting questions about values often assumed in modern life remain after the last chapter.

Is the isolation of nuclear families really healthy?
Are the many activities of high school students really valuable?
When the Nikes and the Levis are gone, what gives a young person status in her community?
Can a person really know where he is going if he has no clue about where he comes from or what his roots are?

The title is a double double-entendre. First, Mavis sang softly every afternoon when the village came into sight, as though she couldn't help herself because the village cast a magic spell of welcome and well-being around her. Second, the villagers gathered ginseng--'sang--which they use in barter and to make a healing herbal tea, which may cast its own spell.

The portrayal of Melungeons in SANG SPELL is both interesting and valuable. Naylor acknowledges in a note that she has read Brent Kennedy's 1994 book on the Melungeons. She does weave much correct information about the origins, names, beliefs, and persecution of these people as well as many historical anecdotes into her compelling narrative. She conveys a real sense of mystery as well. The Melungeons are portrayed as different but competent and intelligent in their isolation, not as happy-go-lucky hunters and gatherers who are illiterate and inept. I am still thinking about this book long after finishing it...still puzzling over the questions it raises.

© Katherine G. Vande Brake, 1999. All rights reserved.

Link to Review of How They Shine: Melungeon Characters in the Fiction of Appalachia by Katherine G. Vande Brake

Link to Review of North from the Mountains A Folk History of the Carmel Melungeon Settlement, Highland County, Ohioby John S. Kessler and Donald B. Ball


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This page was last modified on: Monday, 31-May-2004 09:05:03 MDT

Please e-mail Martha Short if you have a book review to submit. Thanks!