A ballad of contemporary Appalachia
Kings of Coweetsee tells the story of a people and place challenged by change.
Birdie Barker Price, a former schoolteacher and recent widow, heads the Coweetsee County Historical Society, located in the old jail in the remote mountain county. She is the keeper of county history and loves to sing old murder ballads she learned from her great Aunt Zip. She’s grieving the loss of her second husband, Talmadge Price, who documented the county’s many barns before he got cancer.
Birdie discovers a mysterious box left on her porch – a ballot box that was never counted in the contested 1982 election. Maurice Posey had won 30 years ago and served unopposed as the county’s sheriff until he was convicted on federal vote-buying charges.
Birdie seeks the advice of her first husband, Roy Barker, one of Posey’s former deputies, who is running against an incumbent and outsider Frank Cancro, who was appointed to fill out the disgraced Posey’s term. Roy still carries a torch for Birdie, who ran off with the hippie newcomer Talmadge. He hopes in becoming sheriff, he can reclaim the county’s past and his purpose.
Birdie also frets about Charlie Clyde Harmon, a convicted felon, who has returned to town after a lengthy sentence for arson at a Black church in which a deacon died. Charlie Clyde maintains his innocence, insisting he was framed by the former sheriff Maurice Posey.
Birdie’s friend, Shawanda Tomes, an African American quilter, is a faithful member of the church that has since been rebuilt on a million-dollar insurance policy, but she finds it impossible to forgive Charlie Clyde for his crimes.
Harmon has a dark history. As a teenager, he intentionally ran over a drunk in the road. To get him off on a lighter juvenile record, his aging parents sent his two younger sisters to be “married” to the county’s powerbrokers. Deana and Rhonda Harmon later returned home, scarred by their experience, and forever haunted by the local gossip. Rhonda became a wild party girl with many lovers, and gave birth to a daughter, but she never revealed the daddy’s identity.
The novel builds toward the November election and a crucial fundraising event that gathers all the county’s characters, leading to revelations about hidden crimes. The women who have suffered and sang ballads about their woes begin to take their revenge against the supposed Kings of the county. Birdie makes her peace with her own past, passing along the old ballads of survival.
In Kings of Coweetsee, Dale Neal artfully loops his mountain tale in and out of the lives of innocents and villains, the lovelorn and the depraved, money-hungry newcomers and old-timers alike, in a present-day county ruled by men who buy votes and conspire in ruination for their own gain. Oh the crushing weight of sin and shadow in such a kingdom, and oh, the possibility that a ruined girl could rise again sweet as a mountain flower in an old mountain song. As in Carson McCullers’ Ballad of the Sad Café, the genius of this novel is that it sings like a ballad: dire, sweet, and fierce, each character’s fate twisted and true.
– Marjorie Hudson, author of Indigo Field, Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, and Searching for Virginia Dare
"Dale Neal's Kings of Coweetsee has at its center a reconstruction of a community's history, and it's no ordinary history, containing, among other crimes, fixed elections and various forms of mayhem. This novel has a wonderful cast of colorful characters, good- and evil-doers, who show us the underside of local and national American life. Their voices will stay with you long after you close the book."
Charles Baxter, author of The Sun Collective and Wonderlands
"Dale Neal, with a reporter’s keen eye for detail, has brought to life a fictional mountain township, that, on further reflection, might not be totally fictional. Certainly the details ring true. This book is both an evocation of a disappearing culture and a picture of electioneering chillingly relevant to our times. A good read!"
Wayne Caldwell, author of Cataloochee, Requiem by Fire, and Woodsmoke
Novelist, journalist, aficionado of all things Appalachian.