ARC Review: “The Third Rainbow Girl” by Emma Copley Eisenberg

Here are some true things:
1. In the afternoon or early evening of June 25th 1980, Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero were killed in an isolated clearing in southeastern West Virginia.

The Third Rainbow Girl, opening

Author: Emma Copley Eisenberg
Publication Date: January 21st 2020
Publisher: Hachette Books
Genre: True Crime
Format: eBook
Find it on: Amazon, Goodreads, NetGalley

Many thanks to the author, Emma Copley Eisenberg, and publisher Hachette Books for providing a digital ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Even if it is a year late. 🙂

Synopsis

In the afternoon or early evening of June 25, 1980, two young women, Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero, were killed in an isolated clearing in rural Pocahontas County West Virginia. They were hitchhiking to an outdoor peace festival known as the Rainbow Gathering, but never arrived. Their killings have been called “The Rainbow Murders.”

For thirteen years, no one was prosecuted, though suspicion was cast on a succession of local men. In 1993, the state of West Virginia convicted a local farmer named Jacob Beard and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Later, it emerged that a convicted serial killer and diagnosed schizophrenic named Joseph Paul Franklin had also confessed. With the passage of time, as the truth behind the Rainbow killings seemed to slip away, its toll on this Appalachian community became more concrete—the unsolved murders were a trauma, experienced on a community scale.

Emma Copley Eisenberg spent five years re-investigating these brutal acts, which once captured the national media’s imagination, only to fall into obscurity. A one-time New Yorker who came to live in Pocahontas Country, Eisenberg shows how that crime, a mysterious act of violence against a pair of middle-class outsiders, came to loom over several generations of struggling Appalachians, many of them

laborers who earned a living farming, hauling timber, cutting locust posts, or baling hay—and the investigators and lawyers for whom the case became a white whale.

Part “Serial”-like investigation, part Joan Didion-like meditation, the book follows the threads of this crime through the history of West Virginia, the Back-to-the-Land movement, and the complex reality contemporary Appalachia, forming a searing portrait of America and its divisions of gender and class, and its violence. 

From Goodreads

Review

As other reviewers have mentioned, this was quite an usual True Crime book. Where others in the genre amplify the drama, wade in the gory act, and leave you breathless with court room suspense I’d say reading this had more of a poetic element. It was undeniably well written technically and read nicely, but way the story was presented left something to be desired. I believe that’s because the book tried to cover too much at once, which you can judge for yourself by reading on to hear my summation of the flow in the first half.

The Third Rainbow Girl started off with a no-nonsense tone enumerating facts of the killing. It was bit unusual off the bat and I didn’t find it especially compelling if I’m being honest, however I did appreciate that you could tell right away this would be a direct story, strongly rooted in known facts. There’d be no over embellishment or contrived drama here. Many readers may admire the straightforwardness. There’s something to be said for starting off with a strong foundation in the facts of the case, but it does leave less to be uncovered throughout the book later on. That was something I missed.

From there it goes deep into the formation of the Appalachian region and its people. This in itself isn’t necessarily unusual in the genre – a solid overview of the setting helps with sense of place – but this section went on quite long, even going so far as to present stats on mental health and health care in the area. While this was fascinating, it’s not really what one comes to the true crime genre for. Since I’m from a nearby state and do find this kind of information intriguing I enjoyed this chapter or so while patiently waiting for it to come back around to the crime.

Finally we get more of the traditional background and main players in the crime. But then it unexpectedly jumps into a chapter memoir-style on the author’s time in school discovering themselves, moving to the area and working as a troupe lead of a camp, forming intimate relationships, and spending time employed in the region. Again, well written but jarring in terms of content. Because then we jump back to the case where after some time local law enforcement are getting around to doing interviews and making arrests. By this point I can’t say I’m sure why the previous personal reflection was relevant except by geological location. Thirteen years later we get a court room up and running to rule on it all, but the same names are coming up over and over again. There’s just not enough keeping me hooked at this point unfortunately.

If this book had been presented as a ‘Chronicles of Appalachia’ and listed under general nonfiction it might have read better. Perhaps it could have been fully memoir where the author investigates the area’s history, talks to locals about the Rainbow times. I just feel it was very unusual as a true crime book, mostly lacking the suspense and discovery I find enjoyable in the genre. It is, however, well written and would be interesting with the right expectations set.

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