Back in the 1980s, when I was serving as editor of The Island Packet on Hilton Head Island, our senior reporter interviewed J.E. “Ed” McTeer, who in 1963 retired as sheriff of Beaufort County after nearly 40 years.
McTeer, author of a memoir, “High Sheriff of the Lowcountry,” was quite a character. Among other things, he claimed to be skilled in witchcraft, which he said he took up to counter the influence of root (voodoo) doctors among his constituents.
During the interview, McTeer gave the reporter a small doll, fashioned from a wooden clothespin and wrapped in a yellowed, wrinkled paper on which had been scribbled a barely legible note.
He shared the curse, which he had found hanging near a cemetery, on one condition: That the reporter never disclose the identity of the spell’s intended victim, a woman. Among other misfortunes, the note asked that she be unlucky in love, contract a sexually transmitted disease and be assigned to the state’s high-risk auto insurance pool.
A few days after the article appeared, a well-dressed woman came to the newspaper. When she was told the reporter wasn’t at liberty to disclose the intended victim of the curse, the visitor asked, “Could you at least say whether it’s me? All those things happened to me.”
Root medicine arrived in South Carolina along with slaves imported from West Africa. The sway witch doctors exercised among the Gullah population no doubt has waned in recent years, but they were a force to be reckoned with during the late 19th century. That’s the period James E. McTeer II, grandson of the legendary Palmetto State lawman, chose for his first novel, a time and place (Newfort, S.C.) where cash-poor whites and poorer blacks eked out a living in proximity to a sea that could be alternatively bountiful and foreboding.
Minnow, a young boy, sets out on a seemingly straightforward mission to fill a prescription for his dying father. A pharmacist tells Minnow that he doesn’t have the required medicine but instead directs him to Dr. Crow, a local root doctor. Minnow finds Dr. Crow, but the old man will give him the medicine only if he can obtain dust from the grave of Sorry George, a notorious evil witch doctor with reputedly great power.
The boy’s quest leads to a series of hair-raising encounters, from gun-toting criminals to feral hogs and a plat-eye, a creature that lurks in swamps and is fearsome beyond description. Armed only with his wits and with a stray dog his only companion, Minnow must survive a series of life-threatening challenges on his heroic quest.
What makes McTeer’s novel such an enjoyable read is that, in addition to nonstop suspense, he writes with vivid detail about an environment as ominous as it is beautiful, where each turn in the road or bend in the creek can lead to a breathtaking sunset over a marsh or water moccasins dropping from an oak tree.
Here’s a passage about the devastation Minnow sees after he spends a harrowing night lashed to a tree during a hurricane, which likely was inspired by the 1893 storm in which some 2,000 people drowned and thousands were left homeless along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia:
“He saw the leg and the arm first, just one leg and one arm protruding from the mud. They were shaking in sharp lightning movements, jerking up and down. Farther on another person was buried waist deep, clawing at the mud with one arm while the other hung limp, broken backward at the shoulder. That person was coughing up blood, too. Cries filled the air, weeping, moaning, gagging…”
As the title suggests, “Minnow” is a small novel, featuring a hero slight in stature and young to boot, but make no mistake: This book isn’t meant for children’s story hour. It’s a finely crafted, gripping tale that delights and haunts in equal measure.
Terry Plumb is the retired editor of The Herald.
by James E. McTeer II
Hub City Press
227 pages, $24.95