A Review of Chris McGinley’s Once These Hills
by Ashley Holloway
Set in 1898, Chris McGinley’s rural noir saga Once These Hills introduces the reader to life in eastern Kentucky on Black Boar Mountain, a world relatively untouched by modernization. Until things change. Right from the beginning, the reader senses the strength and fierceness of protagonist Lydia King, then aged 10, whose story begins after unearthing the ancient grave of a bog woman when out hunting with her father, Preston. While some folks up on Black Boar feel the grisly discovery has released a curse onto their humble community, finding the bog woman awakens a sense of kinship to the land for Lydia, imbuing a feral strength and wisdom that she will be forced to draw upon at several points in her life.
McGinley’s championing of strong female characters is evident through Lydia’s character as she progresses into becoming a proficient hunter and trapper alongside her father, skills atypical of young women at the time. Likewise, Lydia’s mother Inez’s acceptance of her daughter’s hunting prowess and contributions to the family’s larder also demonstrate how balancing progressive attitudes with the immediate needs of the family were common at the time, a fact highlighted well by the author. In doing so, McGinley emphasizes the hardships of life in the early part of the twentieth century in rural Appalachia and how survival truly was reserved for the fittest.
Soon, the residents of Black Boar Mountain find their quiet mountain life disrupted by the arrival of the Railway Company, who is extending the rail line into their land to support the incoming timber company. Using whiskey to ply the locals from their land, their corruption of the local sheriff and preacher, and their careless disregard for the people and land, the Railway Company’s pursuit of advancement serves as a brilliant metaphor for our North American history of colonialism and how with capitalism, it is the vulnerable who suffer the most. Further, relying on inmates from the nearby prison for their hard labor, the Railway Company’s single-minded pursuit for profit soon turns sideways when three convicts escape, killing a guard in the process. This serves as an overt reminder to the reader yet again of the human cost of capitalism.
Led by Burr Hollis, a violent and unpredictable predator whose title was “earned on deeds, not talk,” the trio of fugitives flee to Black Boar Mountain. Henry, a thief and a con man whose usefulness extends to his ability to appear utterly unsuspecting and Simms, a “world-class rogue, a man who lived violently wherever life took him,” in prison for rape with a “sixth sense about when to flee,” soon wish they both had followed that sixth sense and parted ways from Burr after the escape instead of following him to Black Boar Mountain.
Fearing bad publicity, the Railway keeps the news of the escape and murder quiet, and with the sheriff in their pocket, little is done to capture the escapees. McGinley explores the relationship between big business and politics further with the comment, “For those in town, the two entities had long ago become one.”
Unaware of the escaped convicts and the danger they posed, 13-year-old Lydia returns home by herself one night in advance of her parents after a visit with neighbors, Clytie and Cornelius Noe, setting in motion a chain of events that would forever alter the trajectory of her life. After hearing the news of the escape and murder from their friend Cornelius, Preston and Inez hurry home to make sure Lydia is safe, only to stumble upon a trap set by the murderous Burr and his reluctant followers. There, Burr murders Preston and they rape Inez with Lydia watching on, sparking her inner strength and fortitude where she becomes “something feral, an animal bent on survival.” Burr and Simms manage to escape, despite Lydia’s proficiency with her bow and arrow.
Following the attack on the King family, the preacher’s use of his sermons to downplay the attack and the sheriff’s inaction at pursuing the fugitives again serves as an effective statement by McGinley of how marginalized voices are often left unheard, thus reinforcing the current stratification present in society today. This can be seen through the insightful but nuanced dialogue, such as, “But it was there, beneath the slick words, woven in alongside the Christian sentiment. To name it openly would be like opening the very wounds he sought to close.” This is further evidenced when, taking to the streets with their weapons after the incident, the residents of Black Boar Mountain gathered “not so much because they feared the prisoner would return, but more as a statement, an expression of unity in the face of being wronged. There was a growing sense of the unjustness of things, and not only the violations and the killing,” actions that parallel current events in North American society in the past few years.
In the years that follow, Clytie helps Lydia find solace and healing in nature, her own “wood sense reawakening” when Inez is left incapable of managing after the attack. This demonstration of yet another strong female character demonstrates McGinley’s support for highlighting the innate strength and resilience in women. Throughout the story runs a subtle feminist undertone, demonstrated by strong female characters that are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in. Likewise, the healing power of nature is another theme that is threaded throughout the story.
As the story progresses, Lydia marries and becomes a mother, taking the reader on a journey that highlights the hardships of rural living and the challenges of maintaining culture and traditions with modernization looming at the doorstep. In doing so, McGinley highlights how some people are forced to make decisions based upon the availability of resources, often requiring individuals to interrupt their lives in a precarious search for better prospects elsewhere.
The expansion of the timber company and resulting environmental degradation challenge their ability to continue to live off the land, forcing Lydia’s husband Cole to seek work in nearby Queen’s Tooth. At this point in the story, the reader becomes so wrapped up in Lydia’s struggles they soon forget about the malevolent Burr. As their lives intersect a second time, Lydia must again rely on her skills as a woman of the woods as this time, she has a lot more at stake.
With a stable set of characters that remain present in Lydia’s life, this story reinforces the individual need for belonging as an essential human need. Infused with a charming Kentucky drawl, the dialogue and prose in this story captivate the reader, effectively helping to set the tone and pace well. With subtle nuances intentionally peppered throughout the story, such as treating Railway and Company as proper nouns, McGinley illustrates how power and influence are often associated with affluence, and how society favours the wealthy. In Once These Hills, McGinley has created a full-circle story with well-developed, three-dimensional characters, wrapping them up in a saga that successfully reminds us of the inevitability of the future; it is coming, and McGinley wants us to be prepared.
Ashley Holloway gets bored easily, so she lives her life according to an ‘&.’ She teaches healthcare leadership in Calgary, AB, and is a nurse with a Master of Public Health, a graduate diploma in Global Leadership, with further studies in intercultural communication and international development. She writes in a variety of genres, including short fiction, book reviews, poetry, essays, academic works, and creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared across Canada and the US, and she has co-authored three books. Ashley reads manuscripts and is an editor for Unleash Press. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She also really loves punctuation.