July 2005

Sarah Vance

nonfiction

Never Seen the Moon: The Trials Of Edith Maxwell by Sharon Hatfield

Our collective fascination with all of the details surrounding celebrity criminal trials has nothing to do with the proliferation of 24-hour-a-day cable news networks. This kind of journalism has a proud history according to Never Seen the Moon by Sharon Hatfield. Hatfield details the murder trial of Edith Maxwell, a photogenic young woman, who was as famous in the early part of the 20th century as handsome murderer Scott Peterson has been at the beginning of the 21st.

Edith Maxwell was a sweet-faced schoolteacher accused of killing her father during a domestic dispute in the Appalachian hills of Virginia
in 1935. Within days of her arrest, Edith became a household name throughout the United States. The salacious elements surrounding the altercation that ended in death were too good to be true, and the story was picked up by the national press and serialized in True Crime magazine.

According to Never Seen the Moon, Edith's mother, Ann, had married beneath her family's class and social distinction when she decided on
the hardworking Trigg Maxwell. Trigg was a stern and dictatorial husband and father. Arguments were frequently overheard outside of the Maxwell family's small house, and in public Trigg never spoke of his wife in a pleasant manner.

Edith was a smart and independent young woman who had left the hills of Appalachia to get a college education on scholarship. When she returned home to teach school, she developed a local reputation as a "party girl" who seemed a bit "too big for her britches." It was an attitude that neither her daddy nor the uptight locals liked.

Devoted to her mother, Edith had been often overheard threatening to pay her father back for his many abuses. A jury deliberated for a
very short time before convicting Edith of first-degree murder, despite the fact that her brother had paid for the very best defense money could buy in Virginia.

Suffrage and women's rights were fresh topics in 1935, and according to accounts in the press, Edith hadn't been convicted by a jury of her peers. The 12 middle-aged men who found her guilty of premeditated murder, were, in fact, a jury of her father's peers. In appealing her conviction, Edith soon found herself an unwitting mascot for the women's rights movement. Her case was tried once again, but justice wasn't served until first lady Eleanor Roosevelt intervened on Edith's behalf.

Never Seen the Moon
is thorough and well-researched, but hardly a joy to read. Hatfield?s experience is as a journalist, and her writing style is dry and academic. Now and then, Hatfield's prose reveals glimpses of how engrossing the story could've been if her writing style had just a hint of the drama of storytelling.

When Hatfield describes Edith's first meeting with the women gathered at the National Women's Progressive Party she writes, "at twenty-two, she [Edith] is a head taller and perhaps thirty years younger than most of the women attending her--a sweet bird of youth among muted silver owls."

Brief glimpses of an engaging and visual writing style only causes the reader greater frustration as it emphasizes the fact that Hatfield's retelling of the events makes the story a dry and boring read when it could've been so incredibly delicious. The drama of Edith's story is so obvious that in 1937 Warner Bros. Pictures released the film Mountain Justice, the story of a rural nurse who killed her father in defiance of the violence he had committed against her. Edith did some publicity for the film while in between trials.

Hatfield overlooks the drama for the details in Never Seen the Moon. In the hands of a master storyteller, the details of Edith Maxwell's trial could've been as completely engrossing as Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm. And Edith's relationship with the women's movement could've captured a picture of one moment in history like Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit. Unfortunately, Never Seen the Moon fails to deliver anything more than just the facts.

Never Seen the Moon: The Trials Of Edith Maxwell by Sharon Hatfield
University of Illinois Press
ISBN: 0252030036
320 pages