Sunday, October 16, 2011

A look at The Ballad of Tom Dooley, by Sharyn McCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb’s series of Ballad novels about the strong-minded residents and the scenic beauty of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains usually make a point of debunking regional stereotypes. In its bleak and honest presentation of the roots of a local legend, The Ballad of Tom Dooley takes the opposite tack, showing many examples of why these stereotypes exist.

At the story’s center are Tom Dula, a scrawny Confederate veteran with a talent for the fiddle and not much else, and Ann Foster Melton, his dark-haired (and married) lover, the most beautiful and most self-absorbed woman in all of Wilkes County. When plain-faced Pauline Foster comes down the mountain in 1866, offering to work for her Cousin Ann as a servant while getting treatment for syphilis, she deliberately spreads around resentment, jealousy, and lies along with her disease. The twisted chain of events eventually leads to the stabbing death of Laura Foster, a drab waif of a girl who’s a distant cousin to both Ann and Pauline.

Living in these isolated mountains, nobody pays much attention to morality. Although Tom and Ann have been drawn to one another since childhood, neither is faithful or sees the need to be. James Melton, Ann’s husband, is too bewitched by her beauty to care about her affair. Left to care for her siblings after her mother's death, Laura sleeps around with many men, Tom included, because there’s nothing much better to do.

Zebulon Vance shares narration duties with Pauline, which provides some relief from her sociopathic viewpoint. In an attempt to bolster his legal career, he takes the case pro bono when Tom and Ann are jailed for Laura’s murder. The Confederate ex-governor of North Carolina, Vance is a former mountain boy himself, though he took a different path in life than his clients. Looking back on events 20 years later, he speaks several times about his opposition to secession, his status as a U.S. Senator, and his reasons for choosing the woman he married; while he may be the only one in the bunch with brains and decency, he comes across as a bit of a snob.

The novel’s sense of history is paramount, and McCrumb deftly evokes the violence that the end of the Civil War failed to suppress in the poverty-ridden Appalachians. However, with her primary narrator, Pauline, “not much moved by the beauty of nature,” the gorgeous depictions of the region normally expected from her work aren’t found to the same degree in this one.

A century of the folk process transformed this story into the classic murder ballad “Tom Dooley,” which was made famous by the Kingston Trio in 1958. That version pinned the crime on Tom, but he isn’t the perpetrator here – and the real killer shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although this is a novel about a crime, it’s not meant to be a mystery.

This scrupulously researched account gives a plausible scenario for how Laura Foster’s murder may have happened – the author’s note is generous and satisfying – and is worth reading for its re-creation of a real historical event. But with no reason to care about these lazy excuses for people, the promised tale of star-crossed romance just isn’t there. Finally, knowing the reality behind the legend, one can’t help but wonder if this sordid tragedy really deserved as much attention as it got. “That is the burden of this story,” Vance himself says in the beginning, and although McCrumb is a talented writer, not even she manages to overcome it.

The Ballad of Tom Dooley was published by St. Martin's Press in September at $24.99 ($28.99 in Canada) in hardcover.  The ARC was sent to me as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.


  1. the promised tale of star-crossed romance just isn’t there.

    Well, McCrumb doesn't really romanticize legends. She's more interested in showing the real people behind the story, whether they were nice or not. She effectively debunked the legend of Katie Wyler in She Walks These Hills; she did the same in The Ballad of Frankie Silver. She even did this in her short story "Lark in the Morning" in the anthology Crime Through Time III, a revisionist psychological mystery based on the Child Ballad "The Twa Sisters," about one sister who murders another for the man they both want.

    McCrumb really doesn't specialize in star-crossed lovers or romance. The product description of the book--"bringing to life the star-crossed lovers of this mountain tragedy"--is the kind of thing that her books denounce. I can't imagine why anyone thought that was a good blurb to hang on a book debunking the romanticization of the case, which reduced real people to roles.

  2. Let me clarify. I've read all of McCrumb's novels (not the short story, though) and appreciate that the stuck to the historical record for this one, too. But despite her bringing new material to the table, the characters were just not interesting enough to hang a full-length novel on - even Pauline was predictable in her evil behavior and insistence that she felt nothing. It wasn't just the blurb that alludes to star-crossed romance, but the author's note, which sees parallels between this story and Wuthering Heights. I didn't see it, though. Of her Ballad novels, which I generally enjoy very much, this may be my least favorite.

    The blurb is also deceptive in its claim that it provides an "astonishing revelation of the real culprit responsible for the murder of Laura Foster," but both Vance and McCrumb herself are insistent that this isn't a mystery novel (and it isn't). The perpetrator isn't a secret.

    Another thing - Vance is meant to be a counterpoint to the other characters in the novel, and yes, he's educated and has done something with his life, but with the constant bragging about his accomplishments and statement that he married his wife for social position, he comes across as superficial in a different kind of way. I'm not implying that she should have changed history for the sake of the story, but material from the historical record doesn't always make for a satisfying novel.

  3. Wonderfully incisive analysis, Sarah - and immediately a discussion with strong points of view. Love it! What do you think McCrumb is trying to say with the story? Or is one of the problems that there doesn't seem to be much point or heart to the story the way it is told? It sounds uncompelling, despite the raw material.

  4. Yes, I also enjoy the types of discussions that really engage with the material. I believe she was trying to depict the real-life circumstances that brought about the tragedy mentioned in the ballad, including the historical backdrop. In that, she succeeded. The personalities of the main characters were drawn from trial records, and I think she did the best she could with it, but there's only so much that can be done with the material. In the afterword, the author says that for years people had encouraged her to write a novel about the Tom Dooley ballad, but she felt it was too sordid and unexceptional to write about. That caught my attention.

    People who already know the song and are curious about the real background behind it should enjoy the book. The storytelling flows well, and it's an excellent portrait of the downtrodden post-Civil War Mountain South. I'm not sure if there's a way to tell it that could have added more forward motion to the story. Normally I come away from her books with admiration for at least one of the characters, but here, all I can do is pity them.

    I reviewed her earlier book, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, here last year and was surprised by the abrupt change of theme. That novel made a point of debunking stereotypes; this one has many living, breathing examples of them. Both versions feel authentic - and it made me wonder if stories such as this, because it got national press, were the origins of the stereotypes that locals have spent many years trying to shake. I left a lot out about what sordid things these people get up to! (All from the historical record, too.)

  5. I believe she was trying to depict the real-life circumstances that brought about the tragedy mentioned in the ballad, including the historical backdrop.

    Thank you for the link. It adds more context for me as I have never read anything by McCrumb and so cannot draw any personal conclusions about her writing style. But the impression I am forming here makes me wonder if this latest book may be delineating events in a manner that walks so close to non-fiction as to risk losing sight of the need to create a cogent fictional identity, too. That the story for years held no power of inspiration for the author makes me wonder, too, what finally did drive her to tackle it after all, apart from her apparent dedication to the area's history and people.

    it made me wonder if stories such as this, because it got national press, were the origins of the stereotypes that locals have spent many years trying to shake.

    I hope someone will respond to this question. I have only spent a handful of years in this country, yet have already heard a surprising amount of pejorative stories and jokes (often told with a straight face but a gleam of mischief in the eye by people who identify themselves as northerners, southerners, or westerners) about the inhabitants of the Appalachian mountains.

  6. I wouldn't call the book dry, but it just lacked the character growth or nuance that were in abundance in her other novels. All of these criticisms may make it seem like I disliked it or thought it was terrible, but that's not the case. I have high expectations of her books, I suppose! If you were to try one, I'd recommend The Ballad of Frankie Silver or The Rosewood Casket.

    She writes that after researching the legend more thoroughly, she uncovered new evidence in the historical record that affected how events may have played out. These findings are fictionalized in the novel.

    I've probably heard the same stories and jokes, though I haven't really heard any since I've moved to the rural Midwest (which has its own set of untrue stereotypes).

    (edited to fix typo)

  7. All of these criticisms may make it seem like I disliked it or thought it was terrible, but that's not the case.

    For me it is often the case that the more skilled an author is or the more ambitious or weightier the novel, the more the author's work inspires thought and analysis. Truly strong novels don't merely stand up to intense critical scrutiny; they grow more interesting under it. It also seems natural to me to look at an individual novel in the context of the author's larger oeuvre; while a so-so book from an excellent author can surpass even a good book from an average author, it can simultaneously disappoint in comparison to her other work. All this to assure you that I did not think you considered The Ballad of Tom Dooley bad, simply that this particular offering, from an author you respect, did not have the impact you may have hoped for!

  8. Finally, knowing the reality behind the legend, one can’t help but wonder if this sordid tragedy really deserved as much attention as it got.

    Unfortunately, there's many a ballad and legend of which this is true. I've never understood just why people pick certain events to romanticize--often, there's nothing romantic about them if the truth were out.

    That's one thing I try to tackle in my Cold War novel: the espionage game wasn't romantic. Neither was it necessarily the cold, gritty, double-dealing scenario that can become a reverse kind of romanticism. The people were human beings; the job was often mundane; and the betrayals too often valueless for what was achieved. And yet, I've found some incredible stories there--people trying to do or be their best in a world where the moral lines were artificially drawn, or else reduced to a gray spider's web.

    From what you've told us here, I get the impression that the trouble with McCrumb's characters--no matter how hard she worked with them--is that they weren't trying.

  9. I imagine both aspects of her writing – breaking the stereotypes and reinforcing them are genuine. I’m finding I could easily write for and against labels when telling a story about the folks in my region of choice. Sometimes I ignore certain cultural characteristics to conform to the tale I’m trying to tell at that moment. At other times, I’m ready to throw all my little darlings under the train because certain people just aren’t sympathetic. I’m wondering if that was her point when she wrote the book. Unfortunately, it isn’t always what your reader is expecting.

  10. Danielle, everything you wrote is very true! I'm discovering new facets of the book just from the discussion here, despite its weaknesses.

    Good points, Lucy, and what a great way of putting it. You're also right about the characters. It would be impossible to make them seem noble and retain the historical accuracy of the story at the same time. (With one exception, sort of. This isn't a spoiler, because it's in the publisher's blurb, but Tom's final gesture before his execution is to exonerate Ann from Laura's murder. This is partly out of love for her, but also partly because he felt the victim wasn't worth having two people die for her... one was enough.)

    Deb, yep, I understand what you're saying. Going back to Gehayi's original comment, this story is about as unromantic a retelling of a legend as you can get. I didn't mind that aspect of it so much in itself. I would be interested to hear if anyone very familiar with the original ballad has read the book, because I'm guessing it would have deeper resonance with them. And writing a novel that reinforces stereotypes (in the name of accuracy) is a daring move for a writer, and I can appreciate that.