Both History and Myth: The Shelton Laurel Massacre in Fiction

The 2019 Conference gathers the ASA relatively close to the location of the Shelton Laurel massacre, which occurred in 1863 in Madison County, North Carolina (the county to the north of Buncombe, which contains Asheville). Described by historian John Alexander Williams as “the most notorious and atrocious incident of the [Civil] war,” the event remains relevant more than 150 years after it occurred. Indeed, writers from or familiar with the area have used fiction to grapple with the meaning of Shelton Laurel—what it meant at the time it occurred as well as what it means today. This paper explores two novels—Terry Roberts’s That Bright Land (2016) and Ron Rash’s The World Made Straight (2006)—that each simultaneously uses the massacre as context and presents it for re-interpretation. That is, I argue that these novels require readers to engage with Shelton Laurel as both history and myth. Instead of reducing the massacre to a kind of shorthand for the divisiveness of the Civil War or for lawlessness in the Southern mountains, in their fiction Roberts and Rash depict the Shelton Laurel massacre from multiple perspectives, and emphasize that it continues to take on meaning as time passes. As the protagonist in Rash’s novel imagines, “time didn’t so much pass as layer over things, as if under the world’s surface the past was still occurring.”