I was happily absorbed in a piece of escapist fiction, Sharon McCrumb's MacPherson's Lament, last night when a frisson of delight swept over me. McCrumb was describing a local curiousity I knew well. Her protagonist, fledging attorney Bill MacPherson, was unwrapping his flea market find, an object he had decided was the perfect item to decorate his new law offices, something he said was absolutely unique. As the object emerges from the plastic bag, his partner stares at it in disbelief.
"The taxidermist says that he's an authentic Virginia groundhog. And he wasn't killed for display. He's a road kill," Bill said happily. "And his little black robe is handmade by the taxidermist's wife. Isn't he marvelous?"
A. P. Hill frowned into the leering face of a large marmot, who was stuffed and mounted in a standing position. Moreover, it was dressed in a black satin gown that might have been judge's robes or graduation attire.
I know that groundhog. The fictional Bill MacPherson may have been fallen for the line that it was a one of a kind rodent, a unique piece of the taxidermist's art, but I know better. I have seen his kinfolk, the groundhog choir, lined up neatly in their choir robes with their miniature hymnals in their paws. And so, obviously, has the author, Sharon McCrumb. I can only conclude we've been to the same antiques mall near Fort Chiswell in southwest Virginia.
It is, after all, a part of the country McCrumb knows well, and is where most (or at least all the ones I've read) of her books are set. Bimbos of the Death Star, for example, was a spot-on (and hilarious) description of Technicon, the sci-fi convention held annually on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. When one of her characters in another book ends up going for a "rest" at a local psychiatric facility, it's immediately recognizable to anyone who's spent any time in that part of the world as St. Albans in Christiansburg, the psych ward where VaTech faculty send their kids to deal with their adolescent adjustment syndrome. As a Hokie myself, one of the pleasures of McCrumb's books is the familiarity of the setting. The biggest problem she seems to have is being forced to tone the local weirdness down to make it believable--as is so often true, life in the Blue Ridge hills of Virginia can be too strange for fiction.
Which, no doubt, is one reason for one lonely groundhog in a judge's robe instead of a whole herd of them looking like they're about to burst into a chorus of "Nearer My God to Thee."