One of the enduring popular images of Eastern Kentucky is that of the feudist. In Days of Darkness, John Ed Pearce provides detailed accounts of the actions and people involved in feuds in Harlan, Breathitt, Pike, Perry, Rowan, and Clay Counties. The picture that emerges is one of family loyalties, corruption and ineffectiveness of law enforcement, and a sense of helplessness for those caught in the crossfire.
Pearce delves into the complexities and motivations for many of the famous feuds in Kentucky's history. He begins with an attempt to find a common denominator throughout the feuds, but he admits that there is none. Feuding cannot be explained, according to Pearce, solely on the basis of social or cultural clashes, money or politics, pride or the influence of whiskey. Instead, he concludes that there is no constant, but that each of the actions is united by the times in which they took place. Because feuds were normally of short duration, Pearce maintains that the actions of violent mountaineers can be equated to that of an adolescent's "brash manners" as, "The outside world pressed in, conditions changed, and so did the people" (8).
Those familiar with Kentucky and Appalachian history will recognize the family names of the feuds described by Pearce. There are the Turners and Howards of Harlan County, the Martins and Tollivers of Rowan County, the Hatfields and McCoys in the Tug River Valley of Kentucky and West Virginia. Also included are some lesser known actors such as the Hargis and Cockrell families of Breathitt County. Each feud is described by its origins, continued actions, and final resolutions. The most comprehensive account is of the Howard/Baker feud of Clay County. Hard feelings and disagreements between the two families had existed from early in the nineteenth century and continued as various family members supported one another and avenged violent actions against their side. The inability of law enforcement to put an end to such violence is clearly evident in this feud; local officials aligned with one side over the other, and in several counties requests to various governors for troops to quell the violence were sometimes ignored.
A former columnist and staff member of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Pearce is an entertaining writer, but at times the growing cast of characters in some of the feuds leaves the reader confused. A genealogical/relationship chart would have been helpful. Also, the work has a four-page source essay at the end but does not have detailed notes for specific information in the chapters. Pearce makes clear that some of his work is based on legend, hearsay, and his own personal interviews with community members. The author's [End Page 86] background as a newspaper writer is reflected in his emphasis on the events, not the larger forces at work driving the feudists' actions. Although providing important historical facts, such as the collapse of the salt industry in Clay County following the Civil War, he does not fully connect these economic and political activities to the localized violence. Scholars of Appalachia will need to pursue further study of Pearce's account for their own work. For the general reader, this book is a detailed look at the reality behind the feudist stereotype of Eastern Kentucky.