The Ballad of Tom Dooley
By Sharyn McCrumb
Completed August 12, 2011
The Ballad of Tom Dooley, the latest installment in Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Novels, was inspired by the Appalachian folk tune about a young man who killed a woman and was set to die for his crimes. McCrumb did an amazing amount of research in Wilkes County, North Carolina, to uncover what could have happened to Tom Dooley (who was really “Tom Dula”). The end result was a fast-paced, climatic story that presents a plausible explanation to the case.
The story was told by two observers: Pauline Foster, a poor, country woman who had a raging case of syphilis and sociopathic tendencies; and Zebulon Vance, the former governor of North Carolina who was assigned to defend Tom Dula and Ann Melton pro bono. Through Pauline’s narratives, we learned about Tom Dula and his lover, Ann – a narcissistic belle who got men to do whatever she wanted. Pauline was Ann’s cousin, and was jealous of Ann’s beauty and sense of entitlement. Pauline wanted to knock Ann down a peg or two. When Tom began to sleep with another cousin, Laura Foster, Pauline saw her opportunity. She invented stories about Tom and Laura’s affair, planting seeds of jealousy in Ann’s quick-tempered head.
In between Pauline’s scheming, we have the narrative of Zebulon Vance, an out-of-office Confederate politician who needed to work as a lawyer to earn money. Zebulon was a mountain man too, though much more refined than his defendants. Through his eyes, we saw Tom as a down-on-your-luck, star-crossed lover boy who would do anything for Ann. I liked Zebulon’s narrative, but at times he repeated himself. I wasn’t sure if that was intentional or an error in editing, but it added some charm to his side of the story.
Through The Ballad of Tom Dooley, McCrumb painted a picture of a restless, post-Civil War youth. Young people were scarred from the war – both men who fought in battles and women who struggled to survive on the home front. Times were hard – and when you weren’t plowing a field or making biscuits, you reached for easy entertainment: homemade whiskey and gratuitous sex. As this story showed, sometimes your vices could lead to your death.
Fans of Southern fiction are sure to like Sharyn McCrumb’s easy writing style and eye for history. I know I did, and I look forward to checking out more of her books from the Ballad Series. ( )
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.