Excerpt from The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Third Rainbow Girl

The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia

by Emma Copley Eisenberg

The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg X
The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2020, 336 pages
    Jan 19, 2021, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Tara Mcnabb
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Print Excerpt

The Third Rainbow Girl

Throughout the spring of 1980, the Survival Center at the University of Oregon in Eugene mailed thousands of flyers with gratis nonprofit postage to food co-ops and colleges and mailboxes all over America. "This is the Invitation and Information sheet to the 1980 Rainbow Family World Peace Gathering," the flyers read. "These Gatherings are Free and Everyone Everywhere is invited to Come and Share Together. Bring your Friends and all your Relations to Gather with us in the hopes of Spreading the True Truth that Humanity is Beautiful, that We can Live and Work Together in Cooperation and Joy." The flyer invited anyone who could get there to attend a peace festival that summer in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.

Such was the habit of the Rainbow Family, a loose organization that aimed to revive the hippie spirit of the 1960s and had been converging on a different public land for a few weeks each July since 1972. A remote location was plucked off the map, word was mailed out, and several months later, people came—sometimes as many as twenty thousand. The group usually did not bother with permits because permits required the signature of a leader and the Rainbows do not believe in leaders.

The 1980 Gathering in West Virginia would be their first ever in the East.

"Our Relation with the Local People is Very Important," the flyer further advised. "Please be Perfectly Respectful of the Local People in whose area we gather. It is important that we be completely Sensitive, Clean and Polite in all our Dealings with These People. We have worked hard over the years to earn the Respect of the Forest Rangers and Local Citizens, but this is an area that can still use Improvement."

At other Gatherings, Rainbows turned the public bathrooms of several gas stations near their campsite into bathhouses, flooded a local diner for lunch and dinner for a week leaving only pennies for tips, and shoplifted prodigiously from the single general store. A Gathering meant thousands of people tromping, shitting, pissing, and parking their cars. Forest ranger presence had to be multiplied by five or ten, so staff had to be imported from other counties, and then everyone had to be paid overtime. Rainbow people had gotten sick, gotten hurt, inundated local hospitals. They were not malicious—some had gotten up to help waitresses at the diner serve meals, and a Rainbow leader wrote the wronged store owner a fat check as reparations—but they lived outside the rules and did what they wanted regardless of the consequences.

Common sense and good manners would dictate a generous period of advance warning, but it was the middle of May 1980—just a month before the Gathering was scheduled to begin—before Forest Service officials in West Virginia got word that the Rainbow people were on their way. Between five and fifteen thousand people were expected, the Rainbows advised. One hundred acres of woodland were needed, plus parking.

Fifteen thousand visitors! In 1980, all of Pocahontas totaled just below ten thousand. "It looks like we will have lots of company this summer in Pocahontas County," wrote McNeel, breaking the news to his readers. "We urge everyone to be sure of facts before stories are repeated—they have a habit of growing." Some were excited, eager to see with their own eyes the longhairs they had long been watching sit in and burn flags on the nightly news. But would they be naked, lurching around the woods? Would they be food stamp freeloaders?

The Rainbows wanted a spot in the Monongahela National Forest called the Three Forks of the Williams River, which sat smack above the headwaters for nearly every major waterway in Pocahontas County. Perhaps the Rainbows might like to camp at another spot instead? No, the Rainbows said—only that spot would do.

Movies like Easy Rider told a story that positioned "hippies" from the city and "hicks" from rural areas as irrevocably opposed to one another. Yet how much actual hostility citizens of Pocahontas County felt toward the Rainbows in the months leading up to the 1980 Gathering depends on whom you ask. Certainly different belief systems seemed to be colliding. There were incidents in nearby parts of West Virginia around that time involving locals confronting people they perceived as different, sometimes aggressively, and the more liberal newspapers in Charleston printed glowing stories celebrating Rainbow values at the expense of the more traditional local way of life.

Excerpted from The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg. Copyright © 2020 by Emma Copley Eisenberg. Excerpted by permission of Hachette Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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