The Killing Ground
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.
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.
(The entire section is 2,216 words.)