Book Tells Backstory of Ballad
The Ballad of Tom Dooley
By Sharyn McCrumb
Thomas Dunn Books, $24.99
In her latest novel, Sharyn McCrumb explores the story behind the song made famous by the Kingston Trio in the late 1950s.
Using meticulous research and a keen insight into human psychology, McCrumb posits a very credible tale, one that makes sense out of the odd and disconnected facts of the case. Her version doesn’t jive with the usual take on the story — that Tom Dooley is guilty of the murder of Laura Foster.
Set in Wilkes County, North Carolina, after the Civil War, the basic facts are these: Tom Dooley (or Dula, as the name was actually spelled) returns from the war and takes up with his longtime love, Ann Melton, wife of James.
Even though she’s married, Ann takes Tom to her bed, while her husband sleeps in a cot nearby. When her cousin, Pauline, comes to visit, Tom accommodates her as well. A third cousin, Laura Foster, joins in the fun, and Tom is living the dream — mooching from his mama, not working and servicing three women.
Tom is handsome, charming and enjoys hunting, drinking and playing music. Ann Melton is deeply in love with him, but understands his need for variety.
Things get sticky, though, when Ann believes Tom is going to elope with Laura Foster. A neighbor sees Laura leaving with a tote sack in the early morning, riding her daddy’s horse. She tells this neighbor she is going to run off to get married. Everyone assumes she’s going to marry Tom, since he’s been seen coming and going from her place.
I will not divulge McCrumb’s theory about what really happened. But I will say that this novel is amazing.
Told from two points of view, we glimpse the different sorts of people that hail from the Appalachians.
Former Gov. Vance, Tom’s appointed lawyer, gives the outsiders’ take on the scene, while Pauline Foster tells it from her vantage point as one of the major characters. The result is a masterful, haunting story that will make your skin crawl.
Somehow, McCrumb has crafted a cannot-put-it-down-book involving a sordid story about unlikeable people who make foolish choices. Even the voice of Gov. Vance reveals a man more interested in his advancement than either of his wives.
And Pauline Foster? She is a real piece of work, a sociopath who manipulates others for her own pleasure.
Yet, there is tenderness and passion in the work, which make the characters come alive and, almost against the reader’s will, they become sympathetic, especially Tom and Ann, the ill-fated lovers.
In her notes afterward, McCrumb says she fashioned the book on Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” She has captured the mystical feel of that classic and the events and characters continue to stir the reader, long after the novel has been put back on the shelf. A remarkable book from a writer at the top of her game.
Anne Barnhill's debut novel, “At the Mercy of the Queen: A Novel of Anne Boleyn” is forthcoming in 2012 from St. Martin's Press. She is author of “What You Long For” and “At Home in the Land of Oz: Autism, My Sister and Me.” She can be reached at email@example.com.
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