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.