review: the trail by m.a. hunter
Cover Comments: The cover definitely drew me in – beautiful but creepy!
First Lines: “It’s been years since I had a formal job interview, but ultimately the role is to answer customers’ queries about their insurance polices. How hard can it be really?”
Thirty years ago, Jess’s mother, Nora, disappeared while on a charity hike in the US. The devastating loss has afflicted Jess well into her adult life and even inspired her decision to become an investigative journalist.So when Jess receives an anonymous tip telling her that remains have been recovered in the spot her mother disappeared, she wastes no time in jumping on a plane. They say the Appalachian Mountains have secrets, but as she begins to ask around, she learns that the locals do too. But no matter how much they lie, she is determined to find the truth – even if it will irrevocably change her future. Someone wants to keep the past buried. And they will stop at nothing to keep Jess as quiet as the tranquil mountain trail itself…
When I read the synopsis for The Trail, I thought it’d be perfect for me: I grew up in Tennessee, spent time in rural Appalachia regions, and enjoy hiking and camping, as well as a good thriller. While I’ve never done a months-long hike on the level of the Appalachian Trail, I’ve heard friend’s stories about thru hiking the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails, and have been fascinated in their experience and trail culture. Marrying a story on section hiking the AT with spooky Appalachian folklore elements and a daughter trying to find her mother sounded incredible. However, I think I would have enjoyed the book a little more if I had no knowledge of any of the above, because the author clearly doesn’t.
The premise of the story begins when Nora, mother of 5-year old Jess, agrees to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail (with no prior hiking experience) to raise money for her goddaughter Ashley’s medical expenses. I let this very confusing set-up slide, but within reading the first 10% of this book, it also became clear that little to no research was done about thru or section hiking, what hiking the Appalachian Trail would actually be like in 1993, or Appalachian culture and folklore. During their first week hiking the AT, Nora and her hiking buddies are attacked by a PACK OF WOLVES. I found this hard to believe, and then after a 10 second Google search, confirmed that it would be darn near impossible in Maine in the 90s. Then, a member of the hiking crew gets lost in the woods after his tent is blown away. The Appalachian Trail is well-known for being a “green tunnel” with heavy tree cover, and it seems unlikely that a tent would get blown very far without immediately catching on a tree. These are relatively little things, but very much took me out of the story and took away confidence in the author.
The writing also felt unpolished, with a lot of unnatural dialogue and small plot holes. Characters often have knowledge that they wouldn’t have had any way of gaining, and small details just don’t make sense. For example, Jess speaks to a local sheriff’s office about her mom and some remains that were recently uncovered in the area. She asks that she be contacted by the sheriff, but doesn’t leave her name or phone number. He calls her anyway. There are also a lot of information dumps continuously throughout the book, with no building of tension or critical thinking going on for Jess, our main character. It makes the “reveals” devoid of surprise, because there are hardly any connections to what came before.
Similarly, the plot felt all over the place, with Appalachian myths like the mothman and Bigfoot sightings scattered about, but not fleshed out or related to the plot in any real way. There is one bit of mysticism that is heavily related to the plot, but not rooted in Appalachian folklore at all, as far as I can tell. It felt like the author watched a lot of Tiktoks and browsed some Reddit subthreads, and tried to put as many of those elements into the book as possible, without actually making them a main plot thread. After reading the author’s note at the end, I realized I was spot on about that – the book was conceived in response to a tweet from the author’s agent, asking for a thriller set in the Appalachian Mountains. The author then wrote the book in the following 39 days, and specifically mentions watching Tiktoks as part of the process.
Which brings me to my biggest problem with this book: there are a lot of mentions throughout the book of “mountain people” or locals to the rural towns on the Appalachian Trail, and every mention felt extremely stereotypical. Two of the locals make references to the lying federal government, almost every local character gives some sort of cryptic warning about the woods or other locals, and the main community featured has some unexplained god worship situation, and the same community uses their own forms of medicine that is a secret within the group. It was a pretty insulting and off-base characterization of an entire swath of people. The author also mentioned in their author note that they had to look up where the Appalachians were, which appears to be the last research effort made.
I really didn’t expect to have a particularly strong reaction to this book, but it hit all the wrong notes for me, and felt exploitative of the Appalachian region’s recent popularity on social media. This book just made me want to read a better book about Appalachia.
Thank you to Netgalley and Boldwood Books for the opportunity to read an advanced reader copy of The Trail. This review contains my honest opinions.