A true thing: A teacher wrote “The Third Rainbow Girl.” A true thing: A student wrote it. A true thing: There was a double murder in a field in the United States National Radio Quiet Zone, where the government restricts Wi-Fi and cell towers so a giant satellite dish can track interstellar signals. A true thing: There are no true things.
In her debut work of nonfiction, Emma Copley Eisenberg recounts her time as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer teaching writing at a camp for teenage girls in West Virginia. An excerpt from her class notes, included in the book, reads: “Does the story have more than one point/idea/theme? Could it be read in more than one way? Does the character have flaws and contradictions? Are all the words carefully chosen? Is every word necessary? Is it physical?”
“The Third Rainbow Girl” ticks all of these boxes.
Its web of complexity stretches from themes of personal and shared experiences, silence in all its permutations, and misogyny’s place in “the groundwater of every American city and every American town,” to outsiderness and community, truth and its subjectivity. It can be read as a memoir, as a deeply researched true-crime report, as a work of philosophy. And the language is physical and visceral in its description of both the corporeal and the psychological. By Eisenberg’s own rubric, this book succeeds on many levels.
Eisenberg is a skilled researcher, a truth made clear by the troves of detail about the “Rainbow Murders” case, expertly laid out in engaging prose. On June 25, 1980, 26-year-old Vicki Durian and 19-year-old Nancy Santomero were murdered in an isolated clearing inside the federal Quiet Zone in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. They were shot at close range. They were hitchhiking to a Rainbow Gathering — an annual, loosely knit convergence of a counter-culture group called the Rainbow Family that focused on peace, freedom and respect — which in 1980 took place not far from where Nancy and Vicki were killed. The titular third woman is Elizabeth Johndrow, who had been traveling with Vicki and Nancy but decided to skip the gathering at the last minute.
The real third rainbow girl, however, is Eisenberg herself.
The search for justice in the Rainbow Murders case quickly ballooned into a complicated, shifty pursuit. Seven local men with reputations for rowdy drinking were accused in various capacities of having something to do with the crime, but it wasn’t until 1993 that a local man, Jacob Beard, was convicted and sent to prison. Later, a serial killer (already imprisoned in a different state) confessed to the murders, and Beard was released. In reporting the many grim details of the case, Eisenberg explores the nature of truth and its connection to the idea of justice; she analyzes the case from the vantage point of storytelling archetypes, psychological theory and, most compellingly, her own shortcomings as an outsider.
Many outsider’s narratives have been imposed on Appalachia, something Eisenberg readily acknowledges and grapples with. Despite her love of the place, her years living there and the community with which she shares a deep and complex relationship, she is not from the area. Perhaps in an attempt to reckon with this fact and to be as objective as possible, Eisenberg injects the book with two vital lifelines: her own memoir-esque chapters, and copious historical context. The narrative is expansive, but it doesn’t get out of hand. It is engagingly written and well paced. Eisenberg’s life in Pocahontas County was complicated by men — her familial love of men, and harm experienced because of men.
Harm will always permeate a world with misogyny in the groundwater. “I felt harmed and also that I had harmed others with my weakness and my silence and my actions,” Eisenberg writes. “Things kept returning to me and knocking, demanding to be heard … for I was not just a witness but a part of all of it, a person who wanted oblivion for my own reasons.”
Oblivion is sometimes preferable to knowledge, but it, too, is ultimately harmful. It is in the relentless pursuit of often unanswerable questions where the narrative becomes queer. While queerness is only explicit in the book a handful of times, the very bones and blood of it — the ways in which it looks in all the corners, always asking why — is where the author’s queer lens shines. Ultimately, the book is about accepting multiplicity and the prismatic nature of truth and justice.
A book like “The Third Rainbow Girl” is a rare find. Its nuance and self-awareness propel the narrative forward into territory far beyond the black and white. In that sense, it is a rainbow in itself.
“The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia” by Emma Copley Eisenberg, Hachette, 336 pp., $27
Reading information: Eisenberg will read from “Third Rainbow Girl” at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 10, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com