Reviewed by Johnnie Bernhard
Sharyn McCrumb’s Prayers the Devil Answers is a satisfying novel with interwoven subplots and gifts of dialogue and character development. The reader is transported to rural Tennessee during the Great Depression as the novel’s heroine, Ellie Robbins, carves out a life for herself and her children, despite the shroud of poverty, superstition, and ignorance of small town life.
Suspense arises immediately when mountain girls in search of a husband play the Dumb Supper game, a ritual that’s performed in an abandoned cabin late at night. A rule is broken during that ritual; someone will pay for the mistake.
Readers meet the Robbinses, a dutiful but extremely poor family who has for generations made their living off the land in the mountains of Tennessee. Albert Robbins breaks with tradition and moves his family into town. It’s a move both terrifying and exhilarating for his young wife, Ellie. She has lived her entire life surrounded by family and is unaccustomed to strangers. But Ellie becomes a strong, independent woman through a cleverly written backstory detailing an incident in Ellie’s childhood. Her endurance is not only noteworthy; it also sustains her throughout her silent suffering.
Albert successfully runs for sheriff of the small town, only to die shortly thereafter from pneumonia. Ellie is appointed to serve out his term. Soon she must fight for acceptance as a woman in this traditionally male role, and as a stranger in the small town. And small town rural Tennessee, in 1936, is unforgiving of strangers and independent women.
The rule breaker from the long ago Dumb Supper ritual comes to town, befriending a local artist who is working on a New Deal project at the post office. Dark secrets are revealed. As a result, Ellie, as sheriff, must survive parochial superstitions and the dubious ties she has forged with a condemned killer. The future is unpredictable for her as she battles inner demons and struggles with the unstable lifestyle she has adopted as both a mother and sheriff.
McCrumb is a masterful storyteller who has done the requisite historical research on place and folklore to create an entertaining and believable tale. Ellie Robbins is an older Scout Finch of rural Tennessee – memorable in her courage and dignity.
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