[Book Review] Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders
In Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders, journalist Kathryn Miles spends four years investigating one of the most notorious and terrifying backcountry homicides. It is a thrilling, gripping book, sure to appeal to true-crime fans and backcountry aficionados alike.
She navigates her own fears in the wilderness, casts doubt on the favorite suspect of the FBI and NPS, criticizes the initial response and investigation, and eventually comes to a tentative answer and tentative peace. Throughout, it is a moving tribute to the inspiring and promising lives of two talented young women whose lives were cut tragically short.
Author: Kathryn Miles
Length: 287 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Where to Buy: Amazon
Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders takes a deep dive into a pair of unsolved 1996 murders in Shenandoah National Park that has long gone cold. The book is written by Kathryn Miles, an acclaimed journalist, author, and professor.
This gripping and fast-paced true crime book explores the tragic murders of Laura “Lollie” Winans and Julianne “Julie” Williams, a couple spending a romantic week together backpacking through Shenandoah who were assaulted and killed in their tent near the Appalachian Trail.
Throughout, Miles explores violence against women and queer people in the backcountry and navigates her own relationship to safety in the wilderness. She also sheds light on the mistakes made by investigators while collecting evidence, their selective use of testimonies that supported their suspect, and their lack of clear and honest communication with park-goers during the hours and days immediately following the discovery of Lollie’s and Julie’s bodies.
While reading, I truly couldn’t put this book down. It is written in a quick and engaging style and is genuinely moving as it navigates grief, fear, and healing. It is also extremely thorough, weaving together an incredible number of threads into one clear and compelling tapestry. Miles had a nice balance of “scenes” of her own experience investigating these crimes, or of other similar crimes, or of Lollie and Julie’s lives, interspersed with clear and direct reporting about the case.
Though parts of it were journalistic, it was never dry. It truly made me care about Lollie and Julie, and feel the enormity of the impact of their murder. They were people who would have accomplished great things and lived great lives. The way Miles talks about them made me want to be friends with them. It also was well-argued, making an ultimately convincing case for a suspect that hadn’t been previously considered.
True Crime, as a genre, is definitionally sensational—and the Shenandoah murders were undoubtedly a sensational crime. But, at the end of the day, this book discusses backcountry homicide in a way I found irresponsible: it discusses terrifying and sensational crimes without doing its due diligence to emphasize that these risks are minuscule in comparison to everyday life. I worry that, after reading this book, more people will be scared to explore the beauty and freedom of the backcountry.
I believe Miles’ claim that NPS downplays crimes in the backcountry to encourage a feeling of safety among park-goers and agree that they should make all the facts publically available as soon as they are known so people can make their own choices. I also understand that the fears that prevent many members of marginalized groups from exploring the backcountry are rooted in real and horrific crimes that disproportionately target their communities.
But at the same time, the overall risk of death in a national park remains extremely small (0.1 deaths to 100,000 visits), and only 1.25% of those deaths are homicides (data from here). It is extremely unlikely that you will be targeted by a serial killer in the backcountry, and Miles didn’t do enough to emphasize that point.
As someone who is passionate about encouraging more people to enjoy the beauty of the backcountry, I found it frustrating that Miles exaggerates the risks without citing sources.
True Crime aficionados and mystery fans will greatly enjoy this book. It also appeals to anyone who cares about safety in the backcountry, or who wants to learn more about the 1996 Shenandoah murders. It’s also just a flat-out page-turner, so I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good read.
I would not recommend it to individuals who are predisposed to see the wilderness as a terrifying and dangerous place. For instance, you might not want to let your parents read this book when you tell them you’re planning a thru-hike.
“Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” was donated for purpose of review.
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