The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia by Emma Copley Eisenberg

There were so many sentences in Emma Copley Eisenberg’s glorious debut that stopped me cold and made me see the world anew. I’ll quote some of them throughout this review. But the one that stays with me most comes near the end of The Third Rainbow Girl, in what seems like a précis of why this book, and so many great books, exist: “Telling a story is often about obligation and sympathy, identification, and empathy. With whom is your lot cast? To whom are you bound?”

Thinking through these central questions makes you understand why The Third Rainbow Girl stands out in structure and in feeling. It is a book of true crime, centered around the 1980 murders of Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero, both shot to death in an isolated area deep in the wilds of West Virginia’s Pocahontas County. It is a book of memoir, of Eisenberg’s “story of my becoming” as she leaves behind urban living for rural volunteering with disaffected young girls in this pocket of Appalachia and wrestles with her burgeoning queerness in an overwhelmingly heterosexual environment. It is a book of history, of how West Virginia “would struggle to be fully and truly part of the Union.” And it is a book of gorgeous literary merit, digging deep into the maw of misogyny without ever veering into cliché.

“Telling a story is often about obligation and sympathy, identification, and empathy. With whom is your lot cast?”

A single book embodying so many different genres could make for a cluttered, disjointed reading experience. The Third Rainbow Girl, however, moves so seamlessly from one mode to the next that this hybrid approach feels inevitable and necessary. As Eisenberg explains: “I cared about the women who died, I knew, and I cared about the men who suffered because two women happened to die where they lived, in a place America prefers to forget exists. Writing this story became real to me when I realized a story could—must—encompass both.”

Collective Trauma

Sections on the crime and its decades-long aftermath are diamond-like in quality, conveying necessary and often upsetting information—Durian and Santomero were shot and left “perpendicular to the lane, their feet to the road, their heads in the grass”—while putting the murdered women’s voices at the forefront wherever possible. Eisenberg shows how Durian and Santomero’s cruelly shortened lives left permanent voids for those who knew and loved them, and how the resulting investigation caused “trauma on a community scale” in Pocahontas County. Durian’s niece, Brittney, describes how her family refused to discuss Vicki’s murder, and how that failure to acknowledge the pain twisted everyone up. “They believed that if you ignore it, the pain will disappear.”

Clockwise from bottom left: the professed murderer; his victims; and the one who narrowly escaped.

More than a dozen years passed before several suspects were arrested, with one of them tried and convicted for the crime—only for that conviction to be set aside when a serial killer known to target minorities and women confessed to the murders. Local law enforcement, who all get their say in different ways in the book, cling stubbornly to the original narrative, rejecting the “stranger comes to town” theory. It’s just too unbelievable for a mass-murdering drifter to cross paths with two young women traveling together in a remote area. And yet.

The crimes left permanent voids for those who knew the victims.

The wounds ran so deep in Pocahontas County and touched so many lives that when Eisenberg arrived and became a part of the community, she would come to know several people with overt connections to the long-ago local suspects. She would reckon with her own assumptions about responsibility, guilt, innocence, and justice. She would interview everyone she could, and accept her own complicated, conflicting responses. By the time she arranges to meet with Jacob Beard, whose conviction was overturned, Eisenberg “believed he was likely innocent, but that didn’t mean I liked him.” The serial killer in question—dead in 2013—is treated with understanding of his humanity, even as the horror of his ongoing crime spree is never diminished.

Eisenberg, rightly, leaves the reader with the perspective of the woman who nearly accompanied Durian and Santomero on their final, fatal journey but decided against it. For Elizabeth Johndrow, the titular “third girl,” now in her mid-50s, the gaping wound of the murders gives way to peace with the uncertain waves of life. “Being this age and letting things be this uncertain, it’s been a huge practice—it’s like surfing or something. Like, ‘That wave knocked me over.’” She was knocked over, yes, but Johndrow gets back up to live.

The Third Rainbow Girl takes a narrative of death and transforms it into beautiful, pulsating life. It is the book that Eisenberg, whose fiction and journalism I’ve long admired (and whose work I include in a forthcoming anthology of true crime I’m editing), was destined to write. The Third Rainbow Girl announces a writer of extraordinary gifts and grace.

Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita and the editor of Unspeakable Acts