TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In her debut book "The Third Rainbow Girl," writer Emma Copley Eisenberg explores the lingering questions stirred up by a still-unsolved double murder case from 1980. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: In the final pages of "The Third Rainbow Girl," a new book about the long aftermath of the murders of two female hitchhikers in West Virginia in 1980, Emma Copley Eisenberg interviews a friend of the victims. Her name is Elizabeth Johndrow, and fortunately, she parted company with them a day before they were murdered. She's the third rainbow girl of the title. Eisenberg asks Johndrow, who's now in her 50s, why she and so many other young women hitchhiked back then. Johndrow says, well, there was adventure to it. Hitchhiking was like falling forward into the universe that you wanted.
"The Third Rainbow Girl" is a haunting and hard-to-characterize book about restless women and the things that await them on the road. At its simplest, it's a true crime story about the still-unresolved murders of Vicki Durian, age 26, and Nancy Santomero, age 19. The women had been hitchhiking from Arizona to the Rainbow Gathering, a counterculture peace festival held in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. On the evening of June 25, 1980, their bodies were found in an isolated clearing in Pocahontas County, south of the festival. They'd been shot at close range, and there were no signs of sexual assault.
The conventional wisdom was that the killer or killers had to be local, someone who knew that clearing. Twelve years later, seven local men - farmers, mechanics, timber haulers - were charged. Then the charges were dropped due to improper police procedure. In another twist, the investigation focused in on one local farmer Jacob Beard, reputed to be a mean drunk. Beard was convicted but then released from prison six years later when a serial killer, Joseph Paul Franklin, confessed to the murders. Franklin was the man who shot and paralyzed Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, and since he was already on death row for other murders, he was never tried for the so-called Rainbow killings - case closed, sort of.
Eisenberg dives deep here into the backstories of the victims, investigators and suspects, as well as the cultural backstory of Appalachia itself. Because she lived and worked with teenaged girls in Pocahontas County on and off for several years but isn't a native, she's suited to the insider-outsider reporter role. The Pocahontas County Eisenberg evokes is a singular place. For one thing, it sits within the National Radio Quiet Zone, a region where cellphone signals and Wi-Fi are severely restricted in order not to interfere with a giant mountaintop telescope that listens for signals from space. It's a place, Eisenberg says, that demands women and girls be powerful in the ways that more urban places do not, and yet Eisenberg also acknowledges that it's a place, like the rest of America, where misogyny is in the groundwater.
Eisenberg is also fascinated by how prefabricated stories, myths, even fairy tales shape what's considered to be truth. She chips away at the hick monster story that prevailed at the first trial of the local men, which painted them as backwoods predators hunting down loose hippie chicks from the city. She's also aware of the enduring lore of what the late Gwen Ilfill is credited with calling the missing white woman syndrome, how foul play involving white girls, especially if they're pretty, stokes up public interest, while the same fate befalling women of color does not. Eisenberg ruminates over the press coverage of the crime and how the fact that neither Vicki nor Nancy were considered pretty complicated the damsels-in-distress narrative and perhaps explained why the case never rose to a national obsession.
But there's a deeper dimension to "The Third Rainbow Girl" that gives it its contemplative power. Eisenberg intertwines her own raw story about coming into womanhood into the true crime narrative. I said earlier that the third rainbow girl was the one who lived, Elizabeth Johndrow, but Eisenberg herself is also very much the third rainbow girl here. She, too, felt the call of the wild, living among strangers, drinking too much, taking risks.
The spring I was to graduate college, Eisenberg says, there rose in me the desire to drop so hard out of my life that I could hear my life trying to get in touch. That unnameable desire to travel a different path led Eisenberg to Pocahontas County and, ultimately, to write this evocative story of two other restless young women, sisters of the road, who passed through decades earlier and, sadly, never left.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Third Rainbow Girl" by Emma Copley Eisenberg. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the coronavirus epidemic with science writer David Quammen. The World Health Organization has declared the spread of the virus a global health emergency. Quammen says the virus is just the latest example of how pathogens are migrating from animals to humans with increasing frequency and deadly consequences. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.
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