Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751
Hannah “Sissy” McKarkle
Hannah “Sissy” McKarkle, a writer based in New York City. Unconventional and highly intelligent, Hannah searches for truths and in so doing alienates almost everyone with whom she comes in contact. In her hometown of Canona, West Virginia, and to a large extent in her own family, Hannah is seen as an outsider and a troublemaker because she refuses to accept the restrictions that others would place on her. In this sense, she is a rebel and a lover of liberty and thus inextricably linked to other historical figures who defied popular conventions of the day. As the novel opens, Hannah has returned to her hometown to uncover the reasons for her brother Johnny’s death.
John (Johnny) McKarkle
John (Johnny) McKarkle, Hannah’s older brother. Rich, charming, and self-absorbed, Johnny, unlike Hannah, superficially takes on the roles expected of him, from loving son to rich playboy. In so doing, he loses himself and becomes a tragic victim, a seeming sacrifice to powers beyond his control. He loves Hannah more than their parents do and virtually rears her. One night, during a fight in a jail cell, he receives a blow to the head that proves fatal.
Sally Brandon McKarkle
Sally Brandon McKarkle, Hannah’s mother. Hard, cold, and manipulative, she is a society lady in a coal-rich town. Mrs. McKarkle tries to cast her children according to her wishes and succeeds with Melinda and Johnny. After Johnny’s death, she disowns Hannah for refusing to stay at home and tend to her.
Preston (Mooney) McKarkle
Preston (Mooney) McKarkle, Hannah’s father. An ambitious man, he leaves his family farm and achieves success running a coal mine and a law practice. He meets Sally Brandon when she is a little girl, just after her father has committed suicide. His devotion to his wife is almost fatherly, yet he fails as a father to his own children.
Ephraim McKarkle, Preston’s younger brother, sixteen years Johnny’s senior. A tall, plain man who is steadfast and gentle, he works the McKarkle farm. Ephraim disapproves of Hannah’s choices but supports her nevertheless. As children, Hannah and Johnny spent time with Ephraim at the family farm, and Johnny comes to view him as a brother.
Rose Pagano McKarkle
Rose Pagano McKarkle, Ephraim’s wife. A vibrant, beautiful, passionate, and loving woman, Rose hates the cruelty of Hannah’s family and helps her leave Canona after Johnny’s funeral. As a young girl, Rose takes Johnny as her lover, believing that he will marry her even though she is from a lower social class.
Althea Neill, Hannah’s aunt. She is eighty-three years old as the story opens. Hannah goes to Aunt Althea to find out about her family’s past. Unknown to Hannah, Althea provides Jake Catlett with the means of turning his life around after he kills Johnny.
Jake Catlett, a poor hill farmer. One night in a jail-cell brawl, Jake punches Johnny so hard that Johnny falls backward and hits his head. The blow proves fatal. He later becomes a wealthy and successful coal mine operator with Althea’s help.
Melinda McKarkle Cartright
Melinda McKarkle Cartright, Hannah’s older sister. When Hannah is eleven years old, Melinda marries Spud Cartright in a wedding that her mother has orchestrated. Melinda is a younger version of her mother and pays little attention to Hannah as she grows up. After their parents have died, she cheats Hannah out of any inheritance that she might have had.
Thelma (Tel) Leftwich
Thelma (Tel) Leftwich, Johnny’s lover. A beautiful teacher, Tel has no social standing and no chance of marrying Johnny. She blames Hannah and her family for Johnny’s inability to marry her, failing to see that Johnny will never marry anyone.
Candida (Candy) Pentacost
Candida (Candy) Pentacost, Hannah’s childhood friend. She is a legislator who fights to keep coal-mining interests in check. When they are girls, Candy persuades Hannah to show a short story to her father, a newspaper editor, and he encourages her to keep writing.
Kitty Puss Baseheart
Kitty Puss Baseheart,
Ann Randolph Potter
Ann Randolph Potter, and
Maria Crane, Melinda’s friends and symbols of all the injustices Hannah has come to hate. Hannah has known them all of her life. As the novel begins, they pick her up at her motel and take her to the gallery where she is to give a lecture.
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