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  • Writer's picturePortland Jones

Sweet Hope: an Appalachian ghost story

Michael Easterling

Where do I start? There are so many layers in this book, it’s impossible to pull out one as most important. All the themes add their own special something to the story to create a compelling whole.

Parry is a young anthropologist who takes a break from her university life to help a friend. Adam Manly Singer is a musician. He plays, lives, bluegrass with its haunting ballads that tell of a life that was. Adam wants Miss Parry to help uncover the truth of a song that tells of the death of a teacher and his pregnant lover, believed to have been killed by the girl’s uprighteous, indignant family. More exactly, he wants help to exhumate a grave which he believes to be the teacher’s.

Parry makes the long journey to Appalachia to help her friend, hoping the peace and beauty of Hoagland Holler away from the city where she doesn’t feel she quite belongs, will help her as well.

Set in the 70s, this place is so far removed from the city that Parry doesn’t feel she belongs there either. The life is primitive, the people hostile, protective of their own rights while ignoring those of others – even basics like the right to life. Land is what drives their psyche. If you don’t have land, you don’t have anything.

The search for the teacher is initially fruitless, but the ghost of the pregnant lover on her towering horse pushes the search in different directions. As Miss Parry comes closer to the truth, her own life is in danger. The question becomes – who can be trusted?

The story explores friendships and belonging, family ties and obligations. It gives a glimpse into attitudes towards sexuality that caused so much hurt in that era. The impact that the Vietnam war had on its veterans is illustrated through one so affected. It looks at how cultures develop in places isolated from the rest of the world by distance, inaccessibility and hardship. Even religion develops its own flavour in an area which harks back to the old skills necessary for survival when the ‘modern’ world is out of reach.

When I first read this story, I totally believed in the strange society it presented, simply from the strength of the writing. I had no knowledge of life in Appalachia at any time, present or past. I asked the author if this was a created environment or based on the reality of it. The author confirms it was based on both research and personal experience, even the bizarre events of the church. The author remembered as a boy going to a Pentecostal church and watching a worshipper crawl on all fours and bark like a dog.

The story revolves to a great extent around Bluegrass music with the characters singing and playing whenever they can, and lyrics are often quoted. The love of this music was evident, which comes from the author’s own love of the music. All the songs mentioned in the story are songs he has played at one time or another. The author has placed a concealed joke into the story which runs throughout. Miss Parry hates the banjo and scorns banjo players. The author plays the banjo.

The story was prompted from an article in the Smithsonian recounting how the musician John Hartford hired the anthropologist Doug Owlsley to dig up a grave of a mountaineer whose claim to fame was getting killed in a hillbilly feud. As Owlsley worked, John Hartford played the fiddle to help coax the corpse out of his grave. One has to ask which is stranger - the fact or the fiction?

This book is well worth the read. Aside from the intriguing story, it gives immersion into a different way of life.

I asked the author to tell us about themself and their publishing journey.

The author Michael and his wife Elizabeth work together as a team; Michael writes and Elizabeth does everything else, including the editing. It is a joint venture.

Elizabeth says:

We are self-published. For our first book, The Water at the End of the World, I wrote query letters to over 265 agents and had no success getting a foot in the door of traditional publishing. In the early days, self-publishing was a real nightmare and quite expensive. Now with KDP, it’s relatively easy and it gives us access to the largest bookseller in the world.

The cover of Sweet Hope is a story in itself. We knew the cover had to be the photo of Canara Rivers and Rosanne that Adam Manly Singer used for the cover of his album. We have a friend who fits the description of Canara Rivers, and he and his wife posed for us in front of an old barn at a local winery. So I started working with Photoshop (my very first project!) and realized the barn just wasn’t right. So the barn in the final picture is from my grandmother’s ranch in Arizona. The sky was a little dull as well, so I imported a sky from our trip to Lyme Regis.

I did all the formatting using the templates provided by KDP. They’re pretty user friendly, and there are lots of helpful articles and tutorials. It’s a bit of a learning curve, but not too hard.

I published in paperback first, and from there it was quite easy to publish in eBook format as well. More recently KDP has offered a hardcover option as well. The only difference is that you have to adjust the size of the cover. As a surprise, I had four of Michael’s books done up in hardcover, and I’m really pleased with the results.

Marketing has been the hardest part, and I can’t say anything had brought us a lot of success. I have tried some Facebook ads and Amazon ads with limited response. In both platforms, I’ve spent more than I made. I occasionally get a response to posts on Facebook, but it seems like the groups I post in are not really interested in buying books.

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