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THE THIRD RAINBOW GIRL: A literary take on true crime

Happy Publication Day to The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg!

In 1980, while hitchhiking to the Rainbow Gathering, Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero were murdered on isolated Droop Mountain in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Law enforcement and locals alike believed only someone in the community would have the knowledge required to commit the “Rainbow Murders,” and for years, rumor swirled around a group of men from the area, with accusations levied and reputations maligned.

Only in 1993 was Jacob Beard, a farmer, mechanic, and construction worker, brought to trial and convicted based on witness accounts, including an acquaintance with a third-grade education and a man who had been assaulted while in police custody. However, he was acquitted and awarded a $2 million settlement when Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist already imprisoned for a string of murders (and the man who shot and paralyzed Larry Flynt) confessed.

The case pitted neighbor against neighbor and propagated the “hick monster” stereotype of toxic masculinity—and the effect of both lingers in the community today while the area is still scarred from the violence of the murders and the loss of life.

Emma Copley Eisenberg learned of the Rainbow Murders when she was a VISTA volunteer in the area after college. Unaware of the details, she’d even camped on Droop Mountain. While in West Virginia, she became connected to the area and also curious about the murders—some locals still believe Beard is the killer—catalyzing her to undertake the meticulous research and interviews for The Third Rainbow Girl.

As an excellent example of the literary true crime genre, of which I would also include Furious Hours, The Third Rainbow Girl is unexpected, difficult, and rewarding. Rather than tell the story completely chronologically, she begins with a biography of the women and what they experienced. Other sections include the investigation and the Beard trial. Interspersed are memoir-like chapters of Eisenberg’s times in Pocahontas County that recount the effect of the land and the people on her and form the foundation of her commitment to telling this story.

The Third Rainbow Girl, though, is more than the story of the Rainbow Murders as it contextualizes the investigation, trial, and aftermath and illuminates the cultural context in which they occurred.

Thank you to NetGalley and Hatchett Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

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