“The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia” by Emma Copley Eisenberg

With elegant prose, Emma Copley Eisenberg pushes all the boundaries in her nonfiction book, The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hatchette, 2020). It is part true crime, but her lens focuses tighter on the people involved than the typical crime story. Eisenberg delivers the life stories of the victims, their families, the accused, the investigators, the Rainbow Gathering folks, and the community members of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Another thread follows the author’s time spent in that community as part of Mountain Views, a nonprofit organization serving teenage girls. We meet her friends, co-workers, boss, and clients, and learn of her personal exploration of sexual identity. And expertly woven into both threads is extensive background and research on West Virginia—how it became a state, who its people are, what stereotypes have been imposed on the region, and what the Mountain State’s towns are really like.

In short, The Third Rainbow Girl is excellent, literary nonfiction that travels far beyond the usual true crime story. If all you’re looking for is grizzly crime descriptions, this book won’t please you. The book was named a New York Times Notable Book and Editor’s Choice of 2020 as well as nominated for an Edgar Award, a Lambda Literary Award, and an Anthony Bouchercon Award among other honors.

Each section of the book begins with a quotation from some of the most respected writers with West Virginia roots, such as Louise McNeil, Pearl S. Buck, Breece D’J Pancake, and Irene McKinney. The seven sections are titles, “Welcome Home,” “A Divided Heart,” “The Relevant Necessary People, “A Perfect Story,” “The Cogs Don’t Meet,” “Jesse in the Quiet Zone,” and “The Third Rainbow Girl.”

The crime: two young women, Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero, hitched rides across the country to an outdoor peace festival known as the Rainbow Gathering in Pocahontas National Forest. These two women arrived in Pocahontas County, but never made it to the festival because they were shot and killed at close range, their bodies abandoned in a field. Despite an ongoing investigation, no one was prosecuted for the crimes for thirteen years. The accused: A local man, Jacob Beard was tried and convicted but later released for the crimes when another man Joseph Paul Franklin, confessed. He wasn’t the only man to confess to the crimes. The truth: still unknown. To this day, some believe Beard was guilty. Others are equally adamant Franklin did it. Still others believe other suspects killed Vicki and Nancy. The community: divided into Beard or Franklin camps.

Eisenberg does an admirable job examining what goes on in a trial. She provides key excerpts from Beard’s trial, as well as insight into what makes a jury decide to convict or set the accused free.

Psychology and philosophy underpin the writing of The Third Rainbow Girl as it delves into violence against women, confirmation bias, brain functions, and the human need to tell ourselves stories—perfect stories where all the pieces fit. Except sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you have missing pieces.

And yes, there was a third woman—Liz—travelling with Vicky and Nancy. She didn’t die because after making the long trip across the country, she decided not to go to the festival after all because she had “a very strong feeling” of dread, uncertainty. She went to her father’s wedding instead. She lived.

Real life, Eisenberg shows, is not like novels. Real life stories don’t always have perfect answers with loose ends tied up neatly.

Emma Copley Eisenberg’s work has appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Granta, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, Esquire, Guernica, The Washington Post Magazine, and others. She has received fellowships, grants and residencies from Bread Loaf, the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Millay Colony, Jentel Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She teaches the course Reporting for Creative Writers, and has taught creative writing at Bryn Mawr College, the University of Virginia, Temple University, Catapult, and others. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Wesleyan University.





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