Red Emmy: Character Connection

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Lee Smith’s Oral History meanders through about three generations of Cantrells, an Appalachian family. The lynchpin of their history is Red Emmy, a woman named as a witch by the earlier generation.

We’re not told much about Red Emmy in the story. She might be present for about 20 pages. But she sets her mark on this family, alright.

The “facts” are few: she grew up on “the wild side” of Snowman Mountain, where few people could go; her father kept her isolated; she had a head full of red hair, always a bit of a rarity; she “took up” with Almarine Cantrell for a few months; and when she was out of his life, the family luck went all to hell. In the remote “hollers” of Appalachia in the 1870s, you can see why she would get a bad reputation out of this.

Of course, everyone claimed she was a witch and that she had cursed the Cantrells. It’s never clear in the book exactly what was going on with her. In the author interview at the back of the book, Lee Smith says this was a deliberate decision to keep some mystery at the heart of the story. I think it was a good choice.

I find myself thinking about Red Emmy.

We’re told the local legends in the book, that her mean old Daddy sold her to the Devil and she cast a spell on Almarine. He was lucky to escape with his life, but when he did get away from her, she cursed him and all his descendants.

But if we discount superstition, what would her story really be? What kind of life would lead to this kind of legend?

I think she would have been abused by her father in some way. He would have been possessive of her and made sure she had no contact with the outside world. When Almarine stumbled onto her, she would have been afraid, both for herself and whatever punishment her father might dole out, and for this handsome boy who had to have turned her head.

When she gets the courage to go away with him, she would have found unexpected joy. For a girl so isolated to love and be loved, that would be a gift so precious she wouldn’t have even known to look for it. They seem to be happy at first, no matter which version of the story you like.

And then Almarine casts her out. What would she go back to? Her father? Her solitude? Her old life would be unbearable. Would she have settled back into that life? Would she have fought her father off? Would she have tried to find a new life somewhere else?

An ending is hinted at, but that’s a bit far into the book, so I won’t get into that.

And then there’s the curse.

There would be no question that she’d be upset as she left Almarine’s farm. When a jealous woman starts spreading rumors that the family is cursed, it’s widely believed. But it would be so easy to lay all misfortune at the feet of a mythical “curse.” If you look for bad luck you will find it.

My post is disjointed, but Red Emmy is tough to talk about. Mountain witch or misunderstood victim, she left her mark on a small mountain community, either way.

Who have you connected with recently? Link your post on Mr. Linky, then be sure to go check out the other Character Connections!

Character Connection meme hosted at The Introverted Reader

Who do ya love?

Or love to hate?

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1 Comment

  1. +JMJ+

    I like your deconstruction of Red Emmy just as much as I like her mythical character. Both ring true.

    I don't believe that people can be bad luck, but it makes sense that unresolved guilt over a relationship that did not end well would make people feel a bit superstitious.

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