A! Magazine for the Arts

Sharyn McCrumb is holding Tom Dula's fiddle, which is on display at the Whippoorwill Museum in Wilkes County, N.C.

Sharyn McCrumb is holding Tom Dula's fiddle, which is on display at the Whippoorwill Museum in Wilkes County, N.C.

Book Review: McCrumb's The Ballad of Tom Dooley...

August 30, 2011

Sharyn McCrumb's new novel, The Ballad of Tom Dooley, is perhaps the best work in her Ballad series and her best novel in many years. Surely everyone - of a certain age - can turn on their inner stereos and hear the lyrics of the Kingston Trio's 1958 folk song: "Hang down your head, Tom Dooley...." However, few people probably know that the ballad is based on actual events that happened in Wilkes County, N.C. in 1866, the year after the end of the Civil War.

The real Tom Dula (Dooley was the local pronunciation of his name) was the prime suspect when Laura Foster, a young girl, was found murdered and buried in a shallow grave. Dula was her lover, and as the prime suspect, was hanged for the crime. He was also involved in a long-time affair with a married woman, Ann Melton, who was jailed as a possible accomplice after her cousin, Pauline Foster, reported that Ann had showed her where Laura's body was buried.

Just as today's tabloid TV and print journalists use fodder to fuel their ratings or sales, in the late 1860s the sensational elements in this love-triangle case attracted national attention. Even former North Carolina Governor Zeb Vance boosted his political career by leading the defense team. Add to this mix Dula's confession on the eve of his execution, saving Ann Melton, the woman he really loved, and you have the material for songs and myths and novels.

McCrumb says that she resisted for years fictionalizing this most famous of Appalachian ballads because the details had been so distorted over the years, but when commissioned to write a magazine article about the Dula story, she got hooked. With access to a greater array of trial transcripts, military records and other public documents than others who have explored the story over the years, McCrumb has written a compelling work of fiction, coming up with a new version of the intricacies of relationships that led to murder. In the process of sorting out the mystery, she may have developed the most villainous Appalachian woman character ever written, at least rivaling Ron Rash's recent Serena.

Those of us who have followed McCrumb's career have always admired her research skills and have read her novels as much for her accurate depiction of Appalachian social history as for her plotting and character development. In The Ballad of Tom Dooley, she convincingly depicts women in the Appalachian Mountains just after the Civil War, holding households together and struggling to survive by any means they could.

However, it's the complexities of character development and motivation that pull the reader through the novel. The story is told by two first-person narrators: Pauline Foster, who knows all of the main characters, and Gov. Vance, who provides a historical perspective on the events.

In retrospect, McCrumb realized that the story she had just written was an Appalachian Wuthering Heights, as she acknowledges in the "Author's Notes" at the end. Yes, they are all here: the star-crossed lovers Heathcliff and Catherine, Edgar and Isabella Linton, with even the narrators corresponding to Nellie Dean and Mr. Lockwood. Both works are set in a remote and isolated place and are very compelling stories.

About the Reviewer: Ben Jennings is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of the Arts Array Series at Virginia Highlands Community College. He is a founding member of the volunteer editorial committee for A! Magazine for the Arts.

• Sept. 12: Sharyn McCrumb launches book.
• Sept. 19: McCrumb to discuss development of book.