Julia Keller loathed the assignment. What editor in his right mind would send her, cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune, to cover the aftermath of a tornado two hours west in Utica that had already been thoroughly chronicled by the paper’s own news staff? Did they need an emergency book review?
But it turns out there was one angle the news crew had overlooked, one that only a small-town West Virginia girl who at age nine once ran her own Encyclopedia Brown-inspired detective agency could have sleuthed out.
“What impressed me immediately was, how do you deal with the randomness of catastrophe? How do you wrap your mind around this?” Keller recalls. “Small towns are where there are many, many overlapping lives constantly rubbing up against each other; you’re constantly bumping up against other people’s joys and sorrows. It wasn’t my spiritual journey, but instead my journey to understand how the human spirit deals with the randomness of fate. As I got deeper into that idea, it propelled me back and back to Utica.”
Keller not only won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her moving three-part Tribune series about the town’s resurrection, she also came away inspired to create a mystery series set in the fictional West Virginia hamlet of Acker’s Gap that would explore what she calls “Appalachian fatalism.”
The series debut, A Killing in the Hills, kicks off with just such random carnage: A gunman ducks into the town’s coffee shop just long enough to fire three shots, killing three senior regulars. Waitress Carly Elkins, the teenage daughter of county prosecuting attorney Belfa “Bell” Elkins, not only witnesses the shooting but recognizes the killer.
"Are you going to leave or are you going to stay? That is the essential question, the ground beneath your feet."
To varying degrees, the central characters—including aging sheriff Nick Fogelsong, Bell’s BFFs Ruthie and Tom Cox and even Charlie Sowards, aka “Chill,” the ne’er-do-well killer—are all victims of a mountain dysphoria that keeps expectations of life in these hills well in check. Bell, whose own horrific past is revealed as she hunts down the mastermind behind the murders, represents the rare few who escaped Appalachia and returned to help improve its fortunes.
“In S.E. Hinton’s wonderful novel, The Outsiders, she has a great line that those characters are very much about who will go and who will stay,” Keller says. “That’s the question, almost more than who you marry or whether you have a family or what your profession will be: Are you going to leave or are you going to stay? And if you stay, will it be with this ever-growing crust of bitterness, or do you stay for the best of reasons? That is the essential question, the ground beneath your feet.”
Don’t misunderstand: Keller’s upbringing in Huntington, West Virginia, was far from hardscrabble. Her father, a math professor at Marshall University, and her mother, a high school English teacher, imbued their daughter with a love of learning and a gift for storytelling. She went on to work as an intern for syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, earned a doctoral degree in English and was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard.
But what looks great on a resume doesn’t always resonate in the heart.
“There’s a line that a character uses in my next book, which is called Bitter River, that says, ‘The only way out is up,’” Keller says. “That’s a line I’ve heard my whole life and it’s so evocative, certainly in a physical and geographical sense but also in a spiritual sense. You have to overcome barriers even to get somewhere else.”
Keller does a masterful job of leaving spooky little unexplained blanks in each of her characters that prompt the reader to second-guess what they think they know about this slightly inchoate cast. For a central character, Bell remains the most elusive of all, by design.
“As I was writing, it occurred to me that there were these vast gaps where we don’t know a lot about the horrific crucibles she went through. Of course, the town’s name is Acker’s Gap, so you know there is more there,” Keller says.
Like Bell, Keller fled these hills to explore the world, yet finds herself drawn back now that time has sanded off the rougher memories. She recently left the Tribune to accept a teaching position at Ohio University in Athens, just up the road from her hometown in the heart of Appalachia. It’s the perfect vantage point from which to survey the peculiar fatalism of the area.
“A friend of mine who remained in Huntington as an ophthalmologist tells me that the biggest thing she faces in her patients isn’t that they’re lazy or have no willpower, it’s that they will look at her and say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t much matter. My father died in his 40s, my mother died in her 40s, it doesn’t much matter.’ It’s this fatalism, which is very different from cynicism. I thought if I could somehow show that in fiction, it would be a terrific way to address that feeling.”