“The Ballad of Cherrystoke and Other Stories” by Melanie McGee Bianchi

To the surprise of many who were raised on Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies, the Appalachian region, rich with Scots-Irish, African-American, Hispanic, European, and Native American influences, positively simmers in diversity, like a pepper sauce in the stew that makes up the region’s populace. An expanse where abject squalor lives hand-in-calloused-hand with blue collar piety and fist-to-gentrifying-fist with upper-middle class transplants hell bent on bringing with them the comforts and chaos of suburbia.

In her recent short story collection, The Ballad of Cherrystoke and Other Stories (Blackwater Press, 2022), Melanie McGee Bianchi uncovers this multiplicity and gives the reader a true sense of this place we call Southern Appalachia as she explores the bleak-wintered towns, sun-dappled farms, shady glens, and lush mountains through the eyes of a downright odd cast of characters who inhabit these places.

Throughout the stories, Bianchi uses mountain music as a motif, specifically murder ballads. In the introduction she writes, “I’ve long been fascinated by the murder ballads common to the Appalachian range. These are a subset of the fiddle tunes that can be traced some 400 years back to their origins in the old country.” Contained in this collection are weird, wonderful stories that interweave hilarity and love and death, just like one of those mournful old-time ballads that continue to haunt modern-day Appalachia.

In the eponymous story, Shivvy, a young lady trying to live her life after a serious brain injury, works at a lake resort on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Her “twin” brother, Shad, joins her for a few days after running away from the “Cherrystoke School of Professional Crafts” where he was to learn to become a luthier. Shivvy, once a star cross-country runner and promising student, is considered “special needs” now after her accident. She is often taken advantage of sexually by other staff members at the resort, noting that “…they still knocked on my door after the dinner shift, toting Bacardi and weed like a Disney prince would hold roses.” Not actually related (they have the same age and birth month and became siblings when her mother and his father married when the kids were teenagers), it becomes clear that Shivvy loves Shad dearly, but his heart is set on part-time lovers, a rambling lifestyle, and playing old timey music on his banjo.

The story, “Abdiel’s Revenge,” is narrated by a young ex-con with Russian ethnicity who is in a relationship with a fifty-year-old woman obsessed with her inheritance of a generations-old tale of family murder. The narrator tells the story of the woman’s ancestor, Abdiel, who burns down a house killing her mother-in-law then drowns herself in “the icy North Fork.” Though he sees the legend as a bit cliché and “trashy,” he concludes that “passionate arson and suicide by drowning, no whining or forethought, just do it, ha ha – to me, that is pretty badass. If there’s a main idea in all those ballads, in all of Appalachia, to my mind, it comes down to this: bones in the river. And that’s cool.”

In “A Day on Saturn,” an elderly lady tries to find her way after the sudden death of her husband who, freshly retired, harbored dreams of doing those things they could not do when they were younger and had less time on their hands. Now, she rents out her former she-shed, “a pretty little outbuilding” where she used to go to cry. She is renting the cabin to a heavily tattooed, former fire-twirling performance artist turned poet. He notices that the older naïve lady’s junkie neighbor is taking advantage of her by dumping her kids at her house while “looking after her habit.” This story, like many of the others in the book explores the common connections and jarring contrasts of old-fashioned blue-collar boomers (the widow), middle-aged Gen-Xers with non-traditional lifestyles (the poet), and Millennials looking for their own path in a modern world (the older lady’s son).

Bianchi’s stories are stocked with sometimes outrageous but always sympathetic characters such as Nikki, a highland dominatrix and professional baby-namer; “Bad Tooth Brandon,” a locally popular, salt-of-the-earth heartthrob who simply wastes away due to the various addictions and overlooked crises that infect the region; and CJ, an elementary school teaching assistant working in a “state known for the best views and the shittiest teachers’ salaries,” who revolts against school policy by encouraging a group of her fourth-graders, who have formed a pretend nuclear family with each other, knowing that it is likely better than anything they are actually experiencing at home.

Melanie McGee Bianchi

Similar to other refreshing voices such as Leah Hampton and Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, Bianchi avoids the typical and tired stereotypes of Appalachia and, instead, digs deep into the gritty lives of characters who embody the diversity of the region – the locals with families who have lived on mountains long enough that they share names with the hills and windy roads, the “craft beer geeks,” trust fund babies who play at being homeless, truly destitute town kids, white collar professionals turned “outdoorsy freaks,” gay/straight/bisexual mountain folk—all searching for solace, direction, or just openly rebelling from the red-state state of mind that threatens to salt the very soil. In The Ballad of Cherrystoke, Bianchi gives us another much-needed antithesis to the harmful stereotypes that continue to plague this beautiful, magical, tragic region and its people.



  1. Sounds pretty wonderful.

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