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on November 6, 2012
"But it wasn't a dream. It was a place. And you, and you, and you, and you were there. But you couldn't have been, could you?" (Dorothy, at end of The Wizard of Oz)

Cathy Henn's book The Virgin and the Veteran artfully blends the past, the infamous and ultimately unsuccessful escape of James Earl Ray from the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee, with the present, the [also infamous] Barkley Marathons. The characters, the escaped convicts as well as the finest trackers (and their most talented bloodhounds) make their way through, over, and around some of the most difficult terrain in the country, Frozen Head State Park. When Ray escaped in June of 1977, he managed to traverse the landscape for three days before being caught just a short distance from the prison.

The author has taken this tale and mixed into it elements of the Barkley experience, its characters, feelings of terror, hope, despair, etc. If you're a Barkley "veteran," you may feel a bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when you recognize traits of some of the larger than life Barkley "characters." But even you've never been to Frozen Head Park, you'll feel as though you've been there on the slopes, in the saw briar patches, trudging fearfully over the skeletal jeep roads circling the cold abandoned coal mines.

The chapters alternate between the perspectives of Clyde, the main escapee, and John, the guard who captures him. I found this helped empathize with both the pursuer and the pursued.

I hope that Cathy Henn is working on another story; I'll be in line to get a copy.
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on May 16, 2011
As some kind of "literary critic" that no one's ever heard of, I'd like to comment on Cathy Henn's "The Virgin and The Veteran" in two ways: both literarily (of course) and per the back-story of The Barkley Marathons on which Cathy says her story is largely based.

As literature, Cathy is following a long line of historical novella writers who take a few facts and re-craft them into a good work of fiction. Perhaps here the truth is stranger than the fiction, but in this case the new fiction is more intimate, more available to us (today's readers) and, yes, even more exciting! The basic compelling story is how, following a prison break, all the escaped cons eventually get recaptured--saving the best one for last.

It's a narrative structured throughout by using the time-honored technique of two-chapters-at-a-time in sequence, the initial devoted to the "best" escaped con--who is actually "the virgin" here (i.e., a fresh and inexperienced escapee)--and the following chapter devoted to his pursuer, who is "the veteran" prison guard-with-bloodhounds that has tracked down and recaptured many prison escapees. Also the whole story is very well written, and all my picayune "picking points" of grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, etc., are very professionally handled.

Only one picking point, now, concerns typography: when using a font like Times Roman, quote marks and apostrophes, etc., have "tails" that are supposed to point toward or away from their attendant words or letters as warranted. When such a mark is used as an apostrophe indicating slang, omitted letters, and other expressions, the tail of the leading single quote mark needs to point away from the first letter, not towards it. Bad examples of this fairly leap off pages 95-98. Expressions like `em, `til, and `sang (short for "ginseng" we assume) should appear 'em, 'til, and 'sang--and not `em, `til, and `sang. But this is pretty minor. [Not only that, but Amazon doesn't reproduce the Times Roman typeface, so you'll have to use your imagination here.] All in all, a remarkable intelligence is operating here. It becomes immediately obvious that author Cathy knows exactly what she's doing.

Literarily, the story builds just wonderfully from initiating incident (in medias res, like all good epics) to surprising climax and then amusing dénouement. The plot twist at the climax is perfect! We don't want to give anything away here, but the matter-of-fact overall style of storytelling only further enhances the chief guard-tracker's comeuppance which actually--and powerfully--impacts the heart of the story. This thing actually has more "feelings" (and very good feelings) than might otherwise be expected. 'Tis well the whole thing's told by a woman.

A male storyteller, however, would never have the word "ick" (p. 89) come out of the mouth of a man who has just watched another man handle human excrement. There needs to be a much stronger typically male expression here. (And this is pretty minor also.)

Nevertheless, it's obvious Author Cathy has spent a lot of time in male company. She's picked up the lingo, the attitude, the belly-out male badness of braggarts acting bravely. Key word here is "acting." Because really, when all is said and done, "The Virgin and The Veteran" comes from the heart, not the mouth.

Historically, involving The Barkley Marathons:

Author Cathy admits being rather closely involved with this particular footrace ever since its inception in the mid-1980s, and it shows. The back-story--which readers may or may not know (but makes the whole thing much more interesting if they do!)--is that Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary lies near Wartburg, TN, and that's were the infamous James Earl Ray (convicted assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) was incarcerated after sentencing. But in 1977 convict Ray escaped (with help, it's always been assumed) only to flee into the notoriously tough and horrible terrain that surrounds the prison. In something like 54 hours, Mr. Ray could only get as far away as about 5 miles, whereupon he was found (with the help of bloodhounds) hiding underneath a pile of leaves. Cathy's husband RawDog's lifelong friend Lazarus Lake, after he'd learned about this, invented The Barkley Marathons as a footrace to more-or-less run where Ray ran and basically see if more fit and better-trained athletes could outperform him.

Originally the race was set for about 50 miles, then later expanded to 100. The present-day 100-mile incarnation comes with a time limit of 60 hours. To date, only ten men on the planet have been able to do this; that is, to finish the entire race in less than 60 hours. Women have only been able to finish the shortened 60-mile version, called the "Fun Run."

Most all of this is ensconced in Cathy's story. Although she very carefully hides all these facts, nevertheless the setting is indeed the area of that prison and its surrounding geographical horrors--like mountains, rivers, abandoned coal mines, overgrown "haul" roads, brier-infested trails, rattlesnakes, and rats.

To those of us who have attempted running this bad Barkley "thing," much if not most of the terrain Cathy describes is quite familiar, although she seems to have her characters cross and re-cross local Highway 116 (also never named) so often that we end up not knowing where in "hell" they are. Fittingly, the race once used a huge hill (call it a mountain) disaffectionately nicknamed "Little Hell"--and that, we think, is where the story's climax takes place. The New River runs just below that mountain, and the "only way out" of that gorge is to hike along an old coal train rail bed leading to more uphills--the worst of which is a near-vertical slick muddy strip called "Leonard's Buttslide." Again, none of this is named here, but it does become quite obvious what Cathy's talking about. It also becomes obvious that she herself has hiked, run, or crawled though all that mess herself!

Readers "in the know" will be most tempted to assign the real-life James Earl Ray to Cathy's character Clyde. Other escapees may or may not have other historical back-story significance. It becomes apparent that the prison tracking-guards Lt. Harry Stockstill and Lt. John Rankin correspond rather nicely with Cathy's husband RawDog and his friend Lazarus Lake respectively. Beyond that, most Barkley runners and Henn novella readers won't be able to say who's who. And that, too, is part of the book's charm.

As a final point of clarity, Cathy herself cites the historical non-fiction book about The Barkley written by "Frozen Ed" Furtaw. (Tales From Out There: The Barkley Marathons, The World's Toughest Trail Race) And do notice that almost everything about this place and its people involves a nickname: in this case the mountainous forest surrounding the penitentiary is now officially Frozen Head State Park, and thus Edwin J. Furtaw, Jr., becomes "Frozen Ed"--with an assumed correctly-directed apostrophe tail pointing away from the 'E and indicating the omission of the two letters H and A. You see how it all ties together? A great old prison "escape" story can evolve into a much more exciting modern "chase" yarn--with everything correctly spelled and punctuated, of course!

[Submitted by Rich Limacher (real name), an official Barkley "one looper" of 2004]
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on April 29, 2012
I honestly thoroughly enjoyed this book. It had a nice meter, good characterization for such a short story, and I really didn't want it to end. There was one scene where the 'virgin' eats a piece of chicken, and the way the author described it, I was wanting a chicken leg for a week before I finally broke down and cooked some.

It's a very cross generational story in that I think it would be fine for kids and adults alike. I would recommend it to friends, and very much have.

It's definitely worth the time, and I was very pleased with my purchase. I hope Cathy Henn gets to write another one soon, especially if it was anything like this one.
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on March 25, 2011
Filled with insider references of the torturous Barkley Marathons, this story has thrills, adventure, intrigue and at least one particularly horrific situation. Even if you never heard of the Barkley you'll still wonder - will they or won't they finish this race and find release? I attended a Marathons weekend once years ago and always wondered just what the participants went thru "out there". Now I have a better idea.
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