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June 2005
Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven
by Karen Salyer McElmurray

From the back cover of the 2004 trade paperback (University of Georgia Press):

“McElmurray is a powerful writer, successful at rendering both the bleakness of lives lived without hope and the fleeting promise in single moments of recognition. Her mountains pass the test of durable literature.”
—Women’s Review of Books

“This is a story about real life, about people trying to finish things that cannot be finished, about trying to raise the dead, about trying to return mothers to their children and wives to their husbands.... But it is also a story about love, about how salvation can be located ... in the human experience of love.”
—Chicago Tribune

“McElmurray has a singular gift—she takes the black-and-white hardscrabble world of eastern Kentucky and transmutes it into something shimmering and beautiful through the prism of magic realism, telling the truth and more than the truth. A work of stunning originality.”
—Lee Smith

In Karen Salyer McElmurray’s haunting debut novel, we are invited to explore the boundaries between beliefs, desires, obsessions, and madness. McElmurray’s story is set in Mining Hollow, Kentucky, where we meet Ruth Blue Wallen; her husband, Earl; and their son, Andrew. Ruth longs to know God, the only escape she can find in a world that has shown her spiritual, emotional, and sensual defeat. Earl yearns for the music making of his past, now lost as he makes a living as a coal miner. Andrew desires the affection of a boyhood friend, an expression of love considered sinful in rural Kentucky. And with the divinely inspired yet tormenting help of his mother, in a world of deeply and tragically conflicting desires, Andrew must choose to live or die—he must choose an uncertain love or nothing at all.

Karen Salyer McElmurray is an assistant professor in the creative writing program at Georgia College and State University. She has received dozens of honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Sherwood Anderson Award, and the James Purdy Prize for Fiction. She is also the author of Surrendered Child (Georgia) and has published essays and stories in numerous magazines and journals. Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven received the 2001 Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing.

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