In the 1930s and ’40s, Peebles, Ohio, was a sleepy farm town populated by good-natured, hard-working, religious and patriotic people who represent the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethos of rural Appalachia. And those people form the backdrop for A Book of Matches: The Life, Murder and Family of an Appalachian War Veteran, a book written by Robert E. Hawkins, who grew up in Adams County in the 1980s.
Oliver Elliott “Zeke” Stayner grew up during the Great Depression and returned to Peebles after serving in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. Zeke wed his hometown sweetheart, became a small-business owner, and began a family, settling into the post-war American milieu, well on his way to a happily-ever-after life.
That changed in a flash on the night of the Monday after Thanksgiving, 1949, when Zeke, characteristically on a mission of mercy, was brutally slain. It’s from this event that the book draws its title, with the poignant image of a wife looking for her husband, not yet knowing what she would find, on a dark, frigid, rainy night that served as both reality and metaphor.
The murder stunned the people of Adams County and left a young wife and two children without their guiding light. But Edith, Susan and Dottie Stayner carried on, and A Book of Matches follows their journey and that of their family to the present day.
A Book of Matches also weaves national and regional happenings into the tapestry of the Stayners’ lives. It’s a valuable contribution to the history of Adams County and Southern Ohio and another good resource for examining life in central Appalachia from the Great Depression to the present.
By Robert E. Hawkins