“Hemlock Hollow” by Culley Holderfield

InHemlock Hollow, Culley Holderfield takes readers on a fascinating two-fold journey as he skillfully interweaves the lives of twenty-first-century Caroline McAlister and nineteenth-century Carson Quinn.

The story begins with Caroline, a professor of astroarchaeology, finding Carson’s journal in the cabin she is having restored. Her return to this Hemlock Hollow cabin after many years is fraught with memories both painful and frightening. Delving into Carson’s journal, Caroline experiences the collapse of time as her experiences overlap with those of an adolescent boy who discovered the Hollow long before she did and who “lives” there still.

The boy, Carson, captivates Caroline with his inquisitive mind and soul-baring confessions. He comes across as a young John Muir or Aldo Leopold with the species-naming inclination of Roger Tory Peterson. His journal gives intimate details of his surroundings, his family, his boarding-school education, his growing love for Marinda Fallon, and most especially his innermost nature. Having learned that Carson was widely believed to have murdered his brother Thomas, Caroline is determined to prove that belief wrong. Down a rabbit hole of research she goes, revealing layer upon layer of clues and connections.

Caroline’s near-obsession with Carson is understandable; what better way to avoid facing her unresolved grief over her mother’s untimely death at the cabin, as well as the recent wounds of her divorce and her father’s passing? Her attraction to the enigmatic contractor Micah offers another avenue of escape.

As Caroline digs deeper, every answer to the riddle of Carson Quinn comes from an unexpected source. And nearly every character—including not only Carson but his Civil-War veteran father, his loquacious grandfather, Micah the contractor, and Caroline’s parents—hold secrets. Some of those secrets are not unveiled, giving readers their own opportunity to mine their imaginations.

Readers also learn interesting details of North Carolina history. For example, the Kingdom of the Happy Land was a real place, a thriving communal farm developed by former slaves soon after the Civil War. Also revealed is the extent of Union support in the North Carolina mountains during the war years, as well as the importance of Asheville’s Newton Academy in offering high-school education to Appalachian boys of the nineteenth century.

Add to this narrative tapestry Holderfield’s rich descriptive passages, such as this one from Carson’s journal:

It was cold out, and the porch sighed under my weight. Saunter Branch stood still, its falls now icy stalactites, its banks shaped in new ways by layers of snow. The world lay silent except for the light ticking of new snow kissing the old snow.

Another instance delights with its vividness, when, after spending over two hundred pages in Hemlock Hollow and the surrounding area, the reader follows Caroline back to “civilization”:

After two months … modern America hit me with dazzling culture shock. I navigated the tight turns of the double-lane hardtop through the folds of the mountains until the road spat me out onto the wide-open cut of I-40. The interstate was lit by unnatural color combinations of red and gold and blue and purple from the fast-food and gas establishments that clung to its right of way. The farther I got from Hemlock Hollow, the more lurid the scene became.

This particular reader found the last phrase of one passage so exquisite it had to be read twice. The scene is Carson and Miranda’s exploration of an apple orchard at risk of too-early blooming:

We continued on through the orchard, talking no more of the future. We set ribbons on a dozen or so trees. She and her papa are going to try to save them from freezing, but nature ain’t so kind as to let overeagerness go unpunished.

Carson Quinn knows the power and magic of nature. His Hemlock Hollow reveals itself as a mystical place. It offers both Carson and Caroline pain and growth. It offers the opportunity to forgive and to heal. Holderfield provides in his debut novel an original narrative written with sensitivity and insight. Time spent in Hemlock Hollow is time well spent.

Culley Holderfield

Culley Holderfield, who traveled to South America, Africa, and Europe, has previously published short stories and poetry. Learn more about him and his community-development background at www.culleyholderfield.com.


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