- Title: The Third Rainbow Girl
- Author: Emma Copley Eisenberg
- Genre: Non-Fiction
- Publisher: Hachette
- Pages: 318
The Third Rainbow Girl is an unusual true crime book that dispenses with suspense techniques in its prefatory section, “True Things.” In a list of 16 points that begin with the 1980 double murder of Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero in Pocahontas County, W.Va., continue through Emma Copley Eisenberg’s own experiences in the county, West Virginia’s history as a home to natural resources that have been steadily extracted for decades by out-of-state actors, and the trials and confessions that had potential murderers cycling through the legal system for decades, Eisenberg makes it clear that the story in this book is not one of reveals and reversals.
In this, her first book, Eisenberg gives us the names of the likely killers on page two; she tells us who the surviving “girl” of the title is on page three. She lets us know that this is going to be a different kind of book. The Third Rainbow Girl is as committed to history and personal exploration as it is to its respectful and detailed reporting of the murders, investigation, trials and aftermath. Its complexity and insistence that a true crime story is one that expands into further questions, and doesn’t collapse toward a resolution, will frustrate some readers. Some skimmers may exit after what they interpret as the spoilers in these opening pages – but they’ll miss an intimately lived and researched look at life in Appalachia, of life as a woman in constant, uninvited danger from men, and of the deep bonds that are possible between people and a place.
Eisenberg, a New Yorker, first came to Appalachia in a volunteer role, working to “empower the teenage girls of southeastern West Virginia by fostering their academic excellence, their knowledge of the ecology and history of their home state, and their healthy emotional development.” She returned to the state after exiting grad school in 2009, taking an invitation to work at Mountain Views, a non-profit for teenage girls. In the memoirs-centred second part of The Third Rainbow Girl, Eisenberg chronicles her own confusion at a difficult juncture in her life, as she attempted to offer guidance while feeling unmoored herself, unsure whether she had a future as a writer, of her relationships with men and women. When Eisenberg finds herself in a writing group with the man who found the bodies of Durian and Santomero 30 years earlier, she finds herself unable to forget the case, and begins the work that results in this book.
The Third Rainbow Girl ranges over different non-fiction genres, but Eisenberg marshals each section carefully, resulting in a coherent and powerful whole. After the opening list of “True Things,” we move into history: the unique past of West Virginia, a state never quite Southern but not quite Northern, with regional divides between Methodists and Baptists, and voting pattern that has fluctuated between Democratic and Republican until a drift into a red-state era that began in 2000, a “colour that’s been darkening ever since.” Eisenberg details the extraction of the state’s trees, then the resource suck of mining, then its stories – such as the murder of these two women, and the Deliverance-ghoul narrative of murderous rural men that was embedded in the growing coverage of the case, including a fully televised trial on CourtTV.
She also devotes a large part of this first section to chronicling the brief lives of Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero, who came to Pocahontas County to join the Rainbow Festival, a hippie-spirit revivalist festival that was being held in this place that had once hosted sixties Back-to-the-Landers, some of whom drifted back home when they realized how hard West Virginian farming was, some of whom stuck around and blended with the multigenerational Pocahontas families. Durian and Santomero are rendered with wonderful fullness, thanks to Eisenberg’s careful and skilled interviews with their friends and families. Here and throughout the book, she extracts details from conversations that remain with a reader. Before Vicki, an Iowa native, left home for a period of hitchhiking, travel, and discovery, her brother John remembers a dispute she had with their father over her vegetarianism. Leaving the table, she ran up to her room, where John “heard her lifting the needle and playing her Grass Roots record over and over again, and he knew: Vicki would leave, and he would inherit that record.” The repeating memory of the repeating record is apt in this book about a case that investigators, families, and eventually Eisenberg herself can’t stop repeating, and a deliberate reminder that the lives of these women, ended violently as they were, continue impactfully for those who knew them.
The following chapter of memoir may jar readers who are used to the traditional true crime trajectory of going from backstory right into the case and the investigation – but Eisenberg’s personal relationship to this land and culture, and her internal struggles, are an essential piece of this book. In Part 3, “The Relevant Necessary People,” Eisenberg delivers high-quality true-crime reportage, giving us capsule descriptions of investigators and suspects as she moves through the years in which the case remained unsolved. In these pages, The Third Rainbow Girl is as efficient as a good Ann Rule book, stylistically resembling this year’s American Predator by Maureen Callahan in its laying out of facts and personalities. But the context Eisenberg has established, and returns to after this section, is one of deep empathy and searching, from a writer who understands that the stories told about a place and its people, and the people who venture into that place, can never be quite definitive or tidy, much as readers and writers may like them to be.
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