The Killing Ground

by Mary Lee Settle
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The Killing Ground

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2157

The Killing Ground is the fifth and concluding volume of Mary Lee Settle’s magisterial Beulah Quintet, a series of novels published over a period of twenty-six years and spanning some three centuries of English and American history. The internal chronology of the quintet differs from the sequence of publication. Prisons (1973) is set in England in 1649; it tells the story of Johnny Church, about to be executed, who as a sixteen-year-old boy had set out in 1645 to join the forces of Oliver Cromwell. O Beulah Land (1956), set in what is now West Virginia, covers the twenty years from 1754 to 1774 and tells the story of Johnny Church’s descendant, Johnny Lacey, who founds a great estate called “Beulah.” Know Nothing (1960), set in the same region in 1837-1861, concerns the downfall of the estate, which has become a slave-owning enterprise. The Scapegoat (1980), again set in West Virginia, is centered on a bitter coal-mining strike in 1912 which pits descendants of the Church-Lacey line against one another.

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To complicate matters, the final volume of the quintet, The Killing Ground, set in the present but including many flashbacks, is itself a significantly expanded version of an earlier Settle novel, Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday (1964). Dissatisfied with her editor’s cutting of the original work, Settle claimed that the cuts destroyed its crucial connection to the other books. The protagonist of The Killing Ground, Hannah McKarkle, is a novelist: at the literary luncheon which opens the novel, Hannah is identified as the author of Prisons, O Beulah Land, Know Nothing, and The Scapegoat—the very titles of Settle’s books. Hannah identifies herself with her ancestor Hannah Bridewell, Johnny Church’s heir who emigrated to America. This complex sense of history that is still powerfully at work, of the present informed by the past, is Settle’s great achievement in the quintet, and though the five novels can be read independently of one another, they can be appreciated fully only when seen as a whole.

One problem with reading only one book of the quintet is especially prominent in The Killing Ground and the character of Hannah McKarkle. The book centers on the event of Johnny McKarkle’s murder, but beyond that, there is no plot in the sense that a book’s plot is usually constructed. Hannah discovers who killed Johnny very early, and the story from then on is Hannah’s own personal search for the real Johnny and, more important, for herself. Hannah, searching superficially for her brother’s killer, but actually finding a deeper understanding of her family’s roots and connections, and finally of herself, refers to the “first Hannah” throughout the book. The relationship between the two Hannahs is necessary to a full understanding of the current Hannah. Unless one knows that the first Hannah was Hannah Bridewell, born in a London prison and expelled from London as a thief and a whore, the same Hannah in O Beulah Land who escaped from an Indian massacre at Fort Duquesne and, alone in the wilderness, stumbled upon the cabin of Jeremiah Catlett and thus became the “grand matriarch” of the aristocratic families delineated in the three later books, one misses the close connection between the first Hannah, her character and prostitution, and the prostitution, although of a different nature, of the Hannah in The Killing Ground. Even though Settle touches on past family and regional history in The Killing Ground, and gives a sense of “how we got to where we are,” the present family progeny come more fully to life if the earlier stories have been followed. Reading only one book of the quintet handicaps the reader in the same way that the characters in each book are handicapped by not seeing the grand design, by not being in touch with life closely enough to see themselves in the broader sense. All the characters are suspended in their own place and time; it is only in each succeeding novel that their true importance is established.

To eliminate another element of confusion likely to arise with the publication of The Killing Ground, one must return to Settle’s early dissatisfaction with Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday. The Killing Ground is a revision, or, in a technical sense, an expansion of the earlier novel. After the first 165 pages of the new novel, the remainder is almost identical, word-for-word, with Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday. A few paragraphs have been added, a few deleted, and some characters have different names. In each of the novels, Settle carefully researched not only the period, but the language, and chose a tongue appropriate to the time and characters. The Killing Ground is more sophisticated in style than Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday and more contemporary in tone. The change in title and the revision were necessary to Settle’s new vision of what she wanted this last book to be and do. When she wrote Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, neither Prisons nor The Scapegoat had been written, but once they were completed, Settle’s vision changed and solidified in The Killing Ground, allowing her to expand her horizon even beyond the first Hannah, beyond Johnnny Church—“If a city consists, not of old campsites, old fires, but of shelters, tombs, sacred forms, and places for murder, with the illusion of permanency so that in a lifetime it can be left and returned to, as I have done, then this city is three thousand years old”—to the mythic story of sacrifice on the “killing ground” where now stands the spire of All Saints, the Episcopal church, in place of the stone stela that once marked the spot.

This kind of revision is not unprecedented: William Faulkner changed both Flags in the Dust (Sartoris, 1929) and Sanctuary (1931) to satisfy his publisher, but both books have recently been published in the form Faulkner intended. Gore Vidal rewrote The City and the Pillar (1948; revised edition, 1965) and John Fowles, The Magus (1966; revised edition, 1978). Nevertheless, Settle’s situation is unique. By the deliberate, nearly word-for-word reprinting of Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, she evidences satisfaction with the central event of that book, but by building around and into the original work, material that ties the book closely with the first four books, and to some extent, sums up the previous works, and reveals its own story, Settle assuages her dissatisfaction with its lost connection with the other four novels in the quintet.

Whatever classification these novels may receive, they are definitely not “historical escape novels.” Settle demands as much of her reader as she has of herself in her research and writing. The Killing Ground, like O Beulah Land and The Scapegoat, is divided and marked by time periods: “The Return, June 1978”; “Before the Revolution, 1960”; “The Beginning, 1960-1980”; and “Epilogue, 1980.” Within each section, the reflections of the characters and sometimes the omniscient narrator transport the reader either back in time or ahead. This technique is effective in allowing the reader to see a broader pattern, an evolving heritage, a repeated tradition, that—sometimes blessedly—the characters do not see.

In his introduction to the Ballantine paperback editions of the first four novels in the quintet, Roger Shattuck says: “We may not be able to notice everything, but Miss Settle, patiently and convincingly weaving history into her roman fleuve, reveals that nothing has to be lost for good.” Compelled to leave no stone unturned, Settle shifts the point of view frequently from one character to another. For example, in the opening of The Killing Ground, Hannah McKarkle, an accomplished author, returning from New York to Canona in 1978 to speak at a fund-raising event for a new art gallery, is being driven to the function by several of her former friends. Beginning with Hannah’s observations that “They are, in one of the bloodiest centuries of the Christian era, women to whom nothing has happened that is not personal. . . . They exist on sufferance and rule kingdoms too small, clubs, gardens, their imitators. They are the prisoners of the welfare of their parents, their husbands, the habits of their privileges,” Settle shifts the point of view to each of the women and their private thoughts. While Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday is narrated in the first person, The Killing Ground is narrated from multiple points of view, and this change is appropriate to Settle’s intention to illuminate the complexity of the relationships; as each character is revealed, another is veiled, a question surfaces. Hannah’s search finally removes all the veils, and she, like the reader, sees the complete design. Hannah, who searched as much for her brother—“Brother Jonathan, Johnny Rebel, Johnny Dalton, Johnny the Kid, Johnny run the streets . . .”—as for his killer in 1960, in her speech reiterates the pattern of genealogical and historical Johnnies—“Brother Jonathan, Johnny Reb, Johnny Appleseed, a character once as familiar as Uncle Sam, fades in and out of our history. . . .”

In this section, it may be noted that Settle inserts an autobiographical element by referring to Hannah McKarkle as the author of the previous books of the quintet. But while she has used elements of her experience in the area where she lived a portion of her life, in 1983, Settle states that the books are not autobiographical. How else could Hannah McKarkle know the things she knows about the past if she had not done research on her past generations for a purpose larger than her own curiosity, and how else could she link herself to the first Hannah?

By the device of indirection, the search for her brother Johnny, Hannah finds herself. As she explores intimately the relation of Mrs. McKarkle to both Johnny and to herself, coming to realize that the mother has rendered both Johnny and herself sexless, she also realizes that her relation, as well as her mother’s, to Johnny has been mentally incestuous:For if obsession, siege, the hovering of a spirit demanding a central place, all the way into a darkness where I have not yet gone, is love, then I am in thrall, sunk in love, as I have always been in whatever guise I found him, with my brother Johnny. . . .

While Johnny has escaped this mental anguish in death, Hannah must escape in life.

The paranoia of her search for Johnny—“For he, my brother, Johnny, deep within me, has run away from the little old woman and has run away from the little old man, and run away from me too, he can, he can”—changes to panic as Hannah realizes her own possible fate after Johnny’s death—“Run run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man. Come on, Johnny, come on Gingerbread Man, let’s get out of here.”

Mary Lee Settle is reminiscent of Thomas Wolfe in her language, her detailed description, her passion for family. Certainly, “you can’t go home again” is one of the themes of The Killing Ground.Five years after Johnny’s death I had come back, carrying with me some hope, as we all have, that ’things would be different.’ I see now that it was the kind of nostalgia that soldiers have, that things will be the same, but only the same as the simple dream of calm they carry with them for a place that has never been on any earth but the landscape of their hope. . . .

In her grand design, however, Settle surpasses Wolfe, escapes the criticism that has been his for sentimentality and overblown phrases, and transcends the personal, subjective style.

As one lifts with Hannah in the silver plane that carries her away from the Canona Valley, as Hannah gives up Johnny, gives up “all the people that I had conjured up and brought to life again,” and the land, one shares the nostalgia that will forever be a part of Hannah, and identifies with her independence as she realizes “. . . I knew that I had joined the wanderers, from Johnny Church, through the old Hannah, lost in the woods below, Jonathan Lacey, who had brought us there, Johnny Catlett, Carlo Michele, Eduardo Pagano, and Lily; all of those who have set out alone, perhaps self-deluded by necessity.”

As a final touch and a quintet signature, Settle, who began Prisons with Johnny Church saying “I am twenty today. There is only Thankful Perkins to tell it to, but Thankful is asleep,” ends The Killing Ground with Hannah, dreaming, saying, “. . .And I was twenty and there was only Thankful Perkins to tell it to.”

One hopes that, now that Settle has completed her quintet, a publisher might release all the books together. To date, this has not happened; Ballantine has published the first four books in paperback, while The Killing Ground will be published in paperback by Bantam Books. The Beulah Quintet is a notable accomplishment in the world of fiction and deserves proper recognition.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 59

Sources for Further Study

Christian Science Monitor. August 13, 1982, p. B3.

Library Journal. CVII, July, 1982, p. 1346.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 11, 1982, p. 1.

Nation. CCXXXV, August 21, 1982, p. 150.

The New Republic. CLXXXVI, June 16, 1982, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, July 11, 1982, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, April 30, 1982, p. 47.

Saturday Review. IX, June, 1982, p. 71.

West Coast Review of Books. VIII, November, 1982, p. 33.

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