A writer re-investigates the 1980 murder of two young women that occurred in the West Virginia county where she once lived. Thirteen years later, local farmer Jacob Beard was convicted and went to prison for the crime—a decision later overturned in a new trial after a serial killer named Joseph Paul Franklin had confessed to the murders.
... an evocative and elegantly paced examination of the murders that takes a prism-like view of the crime ... [Eisenberg's] unraveling of the brutal double murder is as skilled as her exploration of Pocahontas County, where the men, as much as the women, appear trapped in their predestined societal roles, and where toxic masculinity gnaws at the men, rudderless and lost, who drink to fill the idle hours. But she also digs deeper, beyond the old clichés of insular, backward mountain folk, to find a thriving transgender community and an independent, open-minded streak among the county’s inhabitants ... Eisenberg could have stopped there and had a compelling story, but as in all the best true-crime books, The Third Rainbow Girl is about more than just a quest to solve the mystery. It’s also an elegy for a time when Eisenberg came close to her own self-prescribed destruction among the same towering loblolly pines and bending rivers of Pocahontas County. A sudden confession about her own precarious frame of mind zings like a shocking jolt from the pages ... not just a masterly examination of a brutal unsolved crime, which leads us through many surprising twists and turns and a final revelation about who the real killer might be. It’s also an unflinching interrogation of what it means to be female in a society marred by misogyny, where women hitchhiking alone are harshly judged, even blamed for their own murders.
... a true crime tale as thoroughly researched and reported as it is perplexing ... offers a deep-dive into rural Appalachia, a region of the United States that is little understood, and it digs into questions of how deeply misogyny and bias can run inside a community. It is also an honest and endearing coming-of-age tale — one that will leave readers curious to know what Eisenberg will write about next ... Eisenberg's growing personal commitment to the summer camp for teen girls, and to her friends in this complicated rural ecosystem, emerges as the living heartbeat of the book ... [Eisenberg's] relentless reporting and attention to detail are what make the true crime elements of this book so enjoyable ... accomplishes what any good murder mystery should. It shines a spotlight on a nexus of people and a place. Eisenberg's tendency to weave in references to writers who've preceded her in the genre — Joan Didion and Truman Capote, for example — makes the reading experience uniquely thoughtful and introspective ... The insights into human nature are the real gritty, good stuff you get from reading a masterful work of journalism like this one.
This kind of meta-layering permeates Third Rainbow Girl, creating a reading experience that is both electric and cerebral, acute and obtuse ... one of the most striking and disturbing moments in the book, a potent manifestation of one of the main narrative arcs: storytelling as a basic impulse that can be empowering in some cases and utterly horrifying in others. Both have profound consequences ... The Third Rainbow Girl, then, is not so much a true crime story as it is a philosophical meditation ... The Third Rainbow Girl aims a beam at a vast constellation of droplets, and draws color.