Book Review- “Blood Feud” by Lisa Alther

I came to Blood Feud knowing very little about the Hatfield and McCoy story beyond what I’d picked up from pop culture and the occasional passing reference. I finished the book knowing a lot more about the feud and the people involved. If that was the only criteria for a good book this one would have succeeded marvelously.

First the good:

Alther presents a balanced look at both sides of the feud. She doesn’t take one side or the other and instead lets the tragic cycle of revenge and bloodshed speak for itself. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book is how readily the Hatfields and McCoys could go from living normal lives to executing one another. I was struck as I read the book at how the families were largely respected and well thought of by many in their respective areas even as they were in the midst of killing each other. Perhaps the part of the book that hit me the most was the final pages of the account which showed pictures from Devil Anse Hatfield’s funeral. A picture shows around five hundred people who had gathered to attend his funeral in 1921 which says something of the influence the man had in his community. The photographs in this book really add to the telling of the story and provide a potent reminder that these were real people who lived not that long ago.

Unfortunately, while the history itself is fascinating (even if much of it is come from questionable sources and conflicting accounts), the writing style of the author is simply too casual. Books of this type tend to have the problem of being overly dry but Alther swings too far in the opposite direction. In several cases her prose and vocabulary proved a distraction from what was actually being told. It wouldn’t be so bad if it had only happened once but she sprinkles in her colorful commentary all through the book where it would have been far better if it had been reserved for footnotes.

Blood Feud was my first book on this topic. While it was not a perfect book, it was engaging and it did provide a good introduction to the history of the feud. That said, you can probably do better than this book if you want to start learning more about the Hatfields and McCoys.

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