Midnight in Lonesome Hollow

Published in 2007; author Kathleen Ernst; illustrators Walter Raine and Susan McAliley


Kit's spending some of her summer break with Aunt Millie in the hills of Kentucky. One thing they do often is visit Aunt Millie's former students in Lonesome Hollow and deliver books for them to borrow. Kit has grown attached to one girl in particular, Fern, who lives with her grandmother and older and younger brothers. Fern and her younger brother are welcoming, but their older brother is brooding and terse. Rumor has it that he gave up a paying job at a mine far away, and now he seems to just go wandering through the woods or stay at home resting. Kit's confused by this, but doesn't want to pry. Plus there's worse news: some people from the government are concerned about the welfare of Fern and her younger brother, and might force them to go to an orphanage (the older brother is 17; the parents and grandfather are deceased). Apparently Fern's brother has a plan to earn some money before that would happen, but he won't tell anyone what it is. Fern is worried that it might be illegal or dangerous, and explain why he goes wandering off. Again is worried but doesn't want to pry.

The evening after she's learned about Fern's troubles, Kit and Aunt Millie head to the shuttered schoolhouse for a meeting with the people of the town. They're discussing whether it's feasible to open the school again. The students would love it, and the parents know the education would be wonderful, but they don't know if they can spare their children for even a little bit, as they all are pitching in to help make ends meet. Even if the children could attend, where would they get the money for school supplies like pencils and paper? No one dismisses the idea outright, but it's clear that they need to come up with a solid plan before moving forward.

Kit's nonetheless excited. She received a package from her friends in Cincinnati, and is sure it contains the books she asked them to donate to Aunt Millie's "traveling library." It does, but the books and magazines have been torn and defaced. Kit is almost certain she saw Fern's older brother skulking about during the school meeting...could he have destroyed the books? He heard Kit telling Fern about them.

Kit doesn't have time to ponder the mystery long. A college professor, Miss Lucy, is visiting to record information about basket weaving, which she fears is a dying art. Many of the people in town are skeptical of her, thinking she'll make them out to be ignorant hillbillies, but with Kit's help she's able to interview a few people and gain some trust. One woman even agrees to let Miss Lucy hire her son to drive them from house to house in a wagon (the roads aren't really roads so much as stretches of woods between houses, and Miss Lucy's camera equipment is heavy). She and Kit take detailed notes, and Miss Lucy also expertly sketches and photographs the baskets. One house they visit is a mile up a steep path, too unsteady to take the camera. But they get wonderful notes and sketches there, after a bit of awkwardness between a young women there and Fern's brother, who seems taken with the young woman. Unfortunately, when they get back to the wagon they'd ridden on the trail head, they find the camera damaged and the glass plates holding the negatives smashed, and Kit had slipped on the path and gotten much of their work wet. Kit is more convinced than ever that Fern's brother is causing trouble, seeing as he stormed away before Kit and Miss Lucy left. But why would he do that?

The next night, Kit gets to spend the night at Fern's. She discloses some of her suspicions to her friend, but only vaguely. They hear her brother sneak out when it's dark, and follow him. They're not as good at being stealthy as they think, and he soon catches on to them. The truth comes out, but not the one Kit was expecting. He's been sneaking out to guard a valuable ginseng crop and to learn to how to read from Aunt Millie, because an honest logging company is making its way to Lonesome Hollow, and if he can read and write he can get a job managing some of the land and also make sure it's properly taken care of. He didn't destroy anything of Kit's or Miss Lucy's. The only reason he's been standoffish is that he's upset someone stole the ginseng and he resents feeling like a charming exhibit or a laughingstock because of the cultural differences between his people in Appalachia and those in the rest of America. Kit reassures him that she and Miss Lucy are genuinely interested because they care about the people in Lonesome Hollow and want to get to know them, not because they want to mock them. She apologizes for misjudging him and for any time she might have acted as if she were better than they, whether she meant to or not. But Kit still doesn't know what happened to the books and the camera's glass plates.

The next day another package of books arrives for Kit, and she opens it immediately so that whoever ripped and wrote on the last set can't get to this one. But she realizes that no one broke into the package. People aren't sending the books and magazines they don't read anymore, they're sending books so worn out they can hardly be called books. There's also a letter in the package, praising Kit for helping the "unfortunates" and hoping the "mountaineers" can use the cast-offs. Kit finds the letter and the state of the books insulting, but Aunt Millie encourages Kit to find a silver lining: some of the books are useable, and the people meant well. She and Kit sort the books into ones that are salvageable and ones that are beyond repair. There's a party in town that evening, something to liven the town's sagging spirits. The children, all Aunt Millie's former students, help repair the books and cut pictures from the badly damaged ones to paste into blank journals and make their own stories. Their parents are thrilled to see their children learning again, and agree that meeting in the evening, after chores, is something their families could manage from time to time. Miss Lucy's brother, a musician who works with a radio station, is in town for the party, and is very excited to hear the bluegrass and country music the people Lonesome Hollow play. He's brought a recording machine to capture the music, which could lead to paying jobs with the radio station.

Suddenly, Kit has a flash of insight. She knows who destroyed the glass plates, and he might smash the camera itself and the recorder too. Without stopping to explain, she runs to where the equipment is hidden, and sure enough, finds the boy who'd been driving the wagon standing over them with a hammer. His father died after a long illness that came upon him when he had to debase himself to find work, and the boy can't help feeling vengeful toward outsiders, especially outsiders who took him from his work tending his father's farm. But he couldn't bring himself to smash the machines. Kit is relieved that they've found the culprit and a remorseful one at that, especially since she wants Miss Lucy's brother to record Fern's beautiful singing voice.

As Kit thought, Miss Lucy's brother is stunned at Fern's singing. He takes the recording back to his radio station in Chicago, and Fern gets offered a record contract! The company even sends advance money, enough to keep the government from taking the children without Fern's brother having to go back to the back- and spirit-breaking mining labor. The boy who broke the glass plates has worked off his debt and made things right with Miss Lucy, the young woman Fern's brother was seeing is talking about marriage, Aunt Millie's former students have opportunities to learn, and Fern's family won't get split up any more than it already has. Mystery--and a whole lot of other things--solved.

Looking Back

Because the people in Appalachia had long been geographically isolated in the hilly region stretching from New York to northern Mississippi and Alabama, many modern technologies didn't catch on. People didn't see the need for them as long as their traditional ways worked, and since little of their towns modernized, the traditional ways seemed better. When railroads finally gave Appalachia easy access to the surrounding areas, they were often seen as quaint or even backward. Journalists soon began documenting their lifestyle, some with the intention of recording it for posterity but others seeking to exploit them, even asking people to pose with technology outdated for Appalachia and exaggerating reports of "clan" feuds. Coal mines and logging companies bought up huge tracts of land and employed the Appalachian people, but the work was dangerous and paid poorly. When the Depression hit, the companies shut down, and many found it difficult to farm in the gutted landscape, and came to distrust "outsiders" after their experiences with the dishonest journalists and unethical businesses. The Depression was especially hard there. Appalachia stills has high levels of poverty today, but its cultural contributions and people ensure that it remains an important part of the United States.


This book is dedicated to "Scott, patron of the arts."

When Fern's brother was described as acting tired a lot, I thought he had black lung or something from working in the coal mines.

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