Sunday, February 12, 2017


Prayers the devil answers, they used to call it up home: when you asked for something and your wish was granted in such a way that it did you no good at all.” --from Prayers the Devil Answers by Sharyn McCrumb

During the depression in the mountains of Appalachia, Ellie Robbins prayed her husband Albert, the sheriff of Sycamore Shoals, Tennessee, would be safe in his job. Bootleggers had gunned down the previous sheriff.

Albert died of pneumonia. Ellie’s prayer was a prayer the devil answered.

Ellie asked the county commissioners to let her become sheriff. She needed some way to support their two young sons. The Commission granted her wish, and she ended up having to execute a murderer. Maybe (or maybe not) another prayer the devil answered.

Ellie discovered secrets about her husband. She learned about the man she executed. And she learned the background of the murdered woman.

Some thought it all went back to a Dumb Supper. 

The Dumb Supper was a mountain tradition brought from Scotland, Ireland, or the north of England, no one knew for sure.

Young marriage-eligible women served the supper in an abandoned mountain cabin hoping their future husbands or the spirits of their future husbands would show up.

If a young lady made a mistake serving the supper she was destined to stay single or to have her marriage cursed. The murdered woman, Celia Varden, had done the supper wrong.

Sharyn McCrumb tells Ellie Robbins’ story in a slowly unfolding way. Most of the time, we alternate between scenes involving Lonnie Varden and Ellie Robbins. We watch their lives slowly unfold until they come together in a public execution.

Like all the McCrumb Appalachian novels, this is a powerful story based on McCrumb’s knowledge of the folklore and traditions of the region.

I came upon this book as a Kindle offering from our local library.

Quotes from Prayers the Devil Answers--

“Long ago the ancestors of the mountain quilt makers had put those same designs on their coverlets, and if you looked far enough back into the origin of the tradition, those colorful geometric patterns once meant something. The designs were symbols of protection derived from ancient magic, put there to guard a love one, perhaps a sleeping child, from whatever spirits walked abroad in the night.”
“Albert had been quick to figure out that the most important laws in life are the unwritten ones.”

“Where we come from, people are known for being as economical with their emotions as if they thought they would be charged for them. Albert always said they acted like real life were a type of telegram costing two cents a word.”

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