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Strangers might be welcomed, but if a family member were crossed, "wrong would be returned for wrong"
on May 21, 2013
"One look at the eye-catching Rosanna McCoy with her wavy auburn hair and Johnse (Hatfield) was captivated." This was a classic Romeo and Juliet saga played out in Appalachia, the best-known family feud in America.
But bestselling author Dean King makes it clear that the McCoys and the Hatfields of legend were cut from the same cloth, united in their distrust of government and their hard-won adaptation to a hostile environment. The long-standing animosity between them sprang from many causes, not just the elopement of Rosanna and Johnse as often depicted.
King has a way of evoking long-ago events in cinematic style: "Wall (Hatfield) sat on the schoolhouse porch with a double-barreled shotgun across his lap. By ten o'clock, Sally's crying, praying and pleading for mercy neared hysteria. This was irritating and set the men on edge." The book puts us in the frame, chronicling the rise of the powerful Devil Anse Hatfield and his clan, pitted against Randall McCoy and his kin, all of them willing to have "a shooting match, with live targets." A dispute about a hog becomes bloody murder; simple gossip results in violent reprisals. The skirmishes along the Tug Fork River bordering Kentucky and West Virginia continued from before the Civil War, well into the 20th century. Following the ethos of the old country where family was the most important unit, the isolated denizens of the Appalachian region would do whatever necessary to look after their own.
Although there have been other books about the Hatfield-McCoy feud, King's work draws on all available sources to bring this story alive for modern readers. Public hangings, movie-style shootouts, murderers hiding out in the woods communicating with animal calls, and marauding violence against men and women alike figure in this account. Peppered with photographs, maps, family trees, and the political and legal background to the events, THE FEUD highlights the backwoods moral code in which strangers might be welcomed and neighbors generously assisted, but if a family member were crossed, "wrong would be returned for wrong."
King's descriptions of everyday life present a vivid picture of what it would have been like for Rosanna when she eloped with Johnse, switching her family loyalty possibly irrevocably, and living in the Hatfield cabin where everyone shared a single bedroom. These intrepid mountaineers ate grouse, turtle, groundhogs and possums, made up to 1,300 gallons of untaxed "apple mash" at a time for consumption and sale, and buried feud victims without the help of clergy. In one harrowing scene, a family watches helplessly as two matriarchs are beaten to the point of near extinction as a warning from their enemies, who attack in the middle of the night wearing masks and wielding a cow tail whip.
King suggests that the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys died out gradually with political and economic changes in the region --- better policing, more enlightened governance, the connection of isolated homesteads to central systems. King makes it plain that many descendants of the two clans coexist peacefully now in the region. Most recently, they signed a "peace treaty" to show a united front in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott