Monday, September 5, 2011
Book Review: The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb
I read this new contribution from Sharyn McCrumb about six weeks ago. I wrote a review for VB Front magazine, which was published in the August edition. I offered a slightly different review to Roanoke Times, only to be told that it would not accept my review. Fine, had the Times not told another source that it had no room to run any review of the book. Well, I have room to run the review. Here it is.
Appalachian writer Sharyn McCrumb returns to her ballad series of historical novels with The Ballad of Tom Dooley. Set in 1866 with flashbacks to episodes during the War, McCrumb gives the reader a look at the hardscrabble life of mountain folk in North Carolina.
Using two narrators, one an illiterate mountain woman with a streak of vengefulness and the other an educated former governor and attorney who represents Tom Dooley in his murder trial, McCrumb opens the door to the difficulty of survival in the post-war North Carolina. The cadence of each narrator captures the rhythm of the mountains.
In Pauline Foster, McCrumb has crafted an amoral character, manipulative, self-serving, willing to lie to stay alive. There is little to like in Pauline, yet she is one of the more compelling characters to come from McCrumb's prolific mind. The other central women, all in their early twenties, are either weak or vain. Ann Melton, Pauline's cousin and Tom Dooley's lover, is the vain one. Another self-centered woman, she cares for nothing but her love for Tom. Forget the fact that she is a wife and mother. She defines herself as Tom's lover. The last central woman, Laura Foster, another cousin, is plain, unmarried and takes care of her siblings. Ann Melton believes she has become Tom's lover.
The men are an interesting mix of sophisticated and simple. Tom Dooley (his historical name is Tom Dula, and yes, if you know where to look, you can find his grave) is a happy-go-lucky young man who loves another man's wife, doesn't care who else he sleeps with, and is generally what we would call a handsome wastrel. James Melton, unlucky enough to have married Ann, is the strong, silent type, working his way through life on a hardscrabble farm. And Zebulon Vance, former governor, war hero, lawyer, works pro bono to save Tom Dooley's life. His is the literate voice, and the one that registers remorse at the outcome of the tale.
Well researched, the book pokes holes in the common acceptance of what led Tom Dooley to murder his lover. No, he wasn't hung on a white oak tree. He died on a town gallows after being found guilty of murdering Laura Foster.
If you think you know the story of Tom Dooley from the Kingston Trio song, you don’t. If you want to know what the real story was, read this book. Available online and soon in major bookstores everywhere.