A recently-released coming-of-age novel about a family’s legacy of making moonshine is set in the Brushy Mountains of Wilkes County.
Donna Everhart’s “The Moonshiner’s Daughter” revolves around Jessie Sasser, a 16-year-old determined to escape her family’s bootlegger heritage. Generations of Sassers have made moonshine in the Brushies, and Jessie must decide if she will embrace or reject that tradition as she enters adulthood.
The tagline on the novel’s front cover — “Some legacies are best left behind…”—is a succinct foreshadowing of the internal and external conflict Jessie wrestles with in the fast-paced story set in the 1960s.
The tale begins with a dark and ominous opening line: “The only memory I have of Mama, she was on fire.” Jessie, the narrator of the story, lost her mother when she was only 4, the victim of a moonshine still explosion. Much of the narrative deals with Jessie coming to terms with, and getting to the bottom of, who was responsible for her mother’s death.
A character in the novel refers to the Brushies not as mountains, but “more like bumps,” and I consider that an honest assessment when compared to its loftier neighbors, the Blue Ridge, Great Smoky, Iron and Black mountain chains.
Fictional Wilkes locales abound in the story, from Shine Mountain to Piney Tops High School. The Wilkes Journal-Patriot is also referenced several times.
The Sasser moonshine still is named after its location on Blood Creek, an actual tributary of the Yadkin River in Boomer. There are other nods to real places and things, such as a reference to a character eating a Smithey burger and to a rival moonshiner’s still out on Tom Dula Road.
The novel has received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist. It was also this month’s “Read of the Month” in the Southern Literary Review. Philip K. Jason closes the latter review with, “Meanwhile, if you’re interested in running an illegal distillery, this book can serve as a training manual.”
This is the fourth novel dealing with what Everhart, of Dunn, describes as “family hardships and troubled times in a bygone south.” Her previous works are “The Education of Dixie Dupree” (2016), “The Road to Bittersweet” (2018) and “The Forgiving Kind” (2019).
Everhart told me that when she begins thinking about writing a new book, she generally starts by researching historical events or places. “For my last three books, including this one, this is what I’ve focused on, and our lovely state has such a rich history, there’s no shortage of ideas. I always seem to find something that piques my interest.”
She doesn’t have family or other connections to Wilkes, but said she travels through the county often en route to Avery County, where her husband loves fly fishing the Linville River.
Everhart said Wilkes County was the perfect spot to set this particular story. “For some time, I’ve known about the history of moonshine in North Carolina, and while there were plenty of other counties involved in making and selling it, it was the notoriety Wilkes County gained during its heyday that made it the perfect choice.”
She added, “I think it would have been odd to have this particular story take place anywhere else.” The clincher, she said, was realizing the Brushies, being an isolated spur of the larger Blue Ridge Mountains, were “geographically interesting with a unique name.”
Everhart writes with the confidence and conviction of a veteran author. In reviews, she is often compared to Lee Smith and Kaye Gibbons, who also write about strong Southern women, and that is high praise indeed. I highly recommended her latest work.
Copies of “The Moonshiner’s Daughter” are available at the usual outlets, including Amazon, or checked out at the Wilkes County Public Library, where Everhart will conduct a reading and signing starting at 4 p.m. April 21.