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Book Review | Trailed by Kathryn Miles

From the publisher: In May 1996, Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were brutally murdered while backpacking in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, adjacent to the world-famous Appalachian Trail. The young women were skilled backcountry leaders and they had met—and fallen in love—the previous summer, while working at a world-renowned outdoor program for women. But despite an extensive joint investigation by the FBI, the Virginia police, and National Park Service experts, the case remained unsolved for years. Trailed is a riveting, eye-opening, and heartbreaking work, offering a braided narrative about two remarkable women who were murdered doing what they most loved, the forensics of this cold case, and the surprising pervasiveness and long shadows cast by violence against women in the backcountry.

Trailed by Kathryn Miles is one of the best true crime works I’ve read recently. I didn’t know anything about the murders of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans when I started the book. Author Miles does a really good job helping the reader get to know the two women and understand their passion for life and the outdoors.

Miles also does a good job questioning many of the steps that were taken by law enforcement in the first hours after the bodies were discovered and as the months wore on. This includes the astounding initial suggestion that the deaths were a murder/suicide. Members of law enforcement also continue to cling to a date of death that was four days before the date of death approximated by the medical examiner. Miles makes a good case that decisions were made and minds were made up in spite of much evidence to the contrary.

As a woman who likes to do outdoor things, the author also made me think about my own safety when camping or hiking. “Although the FBI does not keep statistics on gender and backcountry crime, my own archival research finds that the majority of reported murder and rape victims in our national wilderness areas are female, despite the fact that we still constitute the minority of backcountry users and that national murder rates are skewed overwhelmingly towards male victims,” Miles writes (chapter 2 of the advance reader copy). Miles doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable truth that the wilds are a convenient place for predators to look for victims.

Miles tells us that she became obsessed with this case and her book, and it shows. Her obsession may have had a negative effect on her personal life but it pays off in her narrative. Although she visits different points in time, I never felt confused. She immersed herself in the lives of the two women and in the investigations into their deaths, and the book seems exhaustively researched. The author projects a profound sense of “there but for the grace of god go I” when describing the women and their tragic end. The book is deeply personal for the author, which I think is part of why I was so absorbed in the story.

The author sprinkles facts about the Appalachian Trail into her book, which I appreciated. If you like to read absorbing, thoughtful works about true crime, you might want to pick up Trailed.

I read an advance reader copy of Trailed from Netgalley.

Trailed will be released on May 3, and will be available for checkout from the Galesburg Public Library in print and audio.