Living in Marshall since 1975, author Vicki Lane was familiar with the Shelton Laurel Massacre long before she wrote about it. In January 1863, Confederate soldiers of the 64th North Carolina Regiment captured and later executed 13 Madison County men and boys accused of participating in local raids against Confederate holdings. At the time, the event caused national outrage; today, local descendants still discuss and debate the atrocities. But even with the built-in drama, the prolific mystery writer wasn’t particularly interested in writing about the Civil War.
In more recent years, however, as the country’s current political division has grown more pronounced, Lane’s thoughts returned to the strife leading up to both the Civil War and the 1863 massacre.
“I started thinking, what would it be like to have war right on your doorsteps like the people [in Madison County] had back then?” she says.
Lane’s initial inquiry resulted in years of research, including interviews with descendants of those who carried out the Shelton Laurel Massacre, as well as relatives of those who were killed. These and other findings provided the basis for her latest novel, And the Crows Took Their Eyes, which was published on Oct. 16.
Along with exploring the past, the book examines the limitations and biases that individuals bring to storytelling. These different perspectives, Lane writes in the book’s opening notes, highlight how “the real story lies not in the historical events but in the myriad moments that divide imperfect humanity so that, though we may speak the same language, we sometimes find it impossible to understand one another.”
Corn and taters
To achieve this type of retelling, Lane relays the story of the Shelton Laurel Massacre through five alternating perspectives. And while the majority of the book takes place from 1861-65, Lane follows the characters well beyond the Civil War, concluding the story in 1900. The author’s choice grants readers insight into the profound changes and long-lasting impacts the war has had on these five individuals and the communities they represent.
The novel’s pace and tension is also masterfully developed through these alternating perspectives. Readers experience the horror of war — as one might expect, given the topic — but the brutality is further emphasized through the novel’s inclusion of mundane, everyday tasks. In these moments, Lane reminds readers that as thousands of men died on fields far away from their homes, the lives and people they left behind carried on without them.
“These is queer and troubled times but fields still got to be plowed, corn and taters planted, and cabbages and such set out,” notes Judith Shelton in the book’s early pages.
Yet despite this character’s pragmatic approach, the war is never far from her mind. Within nearly the same breath, Judith contemplates the country’s dire reality. “I wonder what it is about some men, maybe most men, makes them act that way — like war is just a game and the killing ain’t real.”
Sadly, like the rest of Shelton Laurel, Judith is destined to experience the severe consequences of the nation’s conflict. Within a year, she’s among the women tortured by members of the 64th regiment while seeking information about deserters. Shortly thereafter, the 13 men and boys from her community, including several family members, are executed — their bodies left for the wild hogs and crows to devour.
Phantoms of illusion
Even with such cruelty exhibited by the Confederates, Lane refuses to allow her work to succumb to the basic trope of good vs. evil. All five narrators are disillusioned by the war’s end and marked by literal or figurative scars. Characters who thought themselves neutral at the start become intimately familiar with slaughter; those who were optimistic about a speedy resolution eventually understand the unrelenting consequences that war brings to all parties involved.
Polly Allen, the wife of Confederate Col. Lawrence Allen, is among the narrators. While her husband is away, their Marshall home is raided by members of the Shelton Laurel community, precipitating the massacre. In fiction as in life, Polly loses two of her three children to scarlet fever shortly thereafter, resulting in a deep and inconsolable grief.
“What has my life been but an illusion?” she wonders. “The illusion of a safe and happy home in a peaceful land — the illusion of a husband always by my side — the illusion that I am a Christian woman, bound to forgive those who sin against me. I gaze at my children, dead and living and through the blur of rising tears, they seem all the same — all phantoms of illusion.”
Though void of dramatic action, these quiet, introspective moments hit readers as heavily as scenes from the massacre itself, wherein the youngest of the 13 victims unsuccessfully begs for his life after witnessing soldiers kill his father and three brothers.
“Life is the illusion,” Polly goes on to reflect. “Only death is certain.”
Not surprisingly, Lane says writing historical fiction about people whose descendants still live within her community proved a daunting task. But the process was also deeply rewarding. “It was like a puzzle trying to make it all come together and turn it into an interesting novel,” she says.
Furthermore, Lane views And the Crows Took Their Eyes as a reminder to readers about the inherent complexity of the human experience. “I think it’s important to realize that no one has the whole truth,” she says. “We’re all flawed. We all see things our own way.”
The challenge, as the book underscores, is finding humanity within those one deems as foe. Otherwise, all sides inevitably resemble the very enemy they fight against.
Or, as Polly observes in the novel, “I see neither honor nor glory in war. Only death and destruction and desolation.” vickilanemysteries.com