Waven's Reviews > The Ballad of Tom Dooley

The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb
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Jul 28, 2011

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bookshelves: fiction, first-reads, romance, suspense
Read from July 28 to August 01, 2011

Sharyn McCrumb makes an interesting case for alterations to the tale of Tom Dooley (Tom Dula), whose story is widely known from song and legend. In a style that mirrors the classic Wuthering Heights, readers are welcomed to the story by the voice of Zebulon Vance, a high-profile Carolina politician forced back into the practice of law after the Civil War and appointed as one of Tom Dula's defending attorneys. He speaks from years beyond the Dula trial, as if writing his memoirs, and shares little but some history and his direct influence in the matter. Most of the story comes from a second voice, Pauline Foster, formerly a hired servant girl in the home of Tom Dula's lover. It is Pauline that McCrumb focuses on, and who she believes holds the key to the real story of Tom Dula and the murder he was accused of. McCrumb offers a new perspective through Pauline with convincing characterizations and a real appreciation of Appalachia.

And while I found McCrumb's zeal for the area, it's history, and it's inhabitants a refreshing change from the stereotypical, I think Pauline's importance is over-stated in this account. Having not researched the affair at all myself, and judging only from what is written in this book, I found the story lacking if not outright improbable. McCrumb seems convinced traditional tellings do not explain everyone's actions but does not address issues with her own version. I have questions with the timeline, motives, and other uncertainties in the account which were never acknowledged. That's not to say this isn't a fast, intriguing read ... but I was not wholly convinced of McCrumb's vision.

Here come my real criticisms. McCrumb notes late in the book that she did not mean to play CSI detective and was "more interested ... in re-creating the world of the post-War mountain South." But that statement makes me question why she then chose this story and put so much effort into the cases of both Pauline and John Anderson. With her bullet points and lists of facts in the Author's Note and Acknowledgments sections - along with the sentence, "We knew we had found a crucial piece of evidence." - it certainly looks as if playing detective were a significant part of it. I think thorough research is essential to any historically-based writing, but in this case it seems almost a bait-and-switch. The cover blurb announces "With the help of historians, lawyers, and researchers, Sharyn McCrumb visited the actual sites, studied the legal evidence, and uncovered a missing piece of the story" ... only to dismiss those efforts by saying she was more interested in the setting and characters than the actual happenings. The actual happenings, of course, being what the entire book is based on.

As for the writing itself, I think McCrumb pushes too hard in the Wuthering Heights theme, and there is enough repetition throughout to cut thirty pages from the length without sacrificing one word of plot, character, or history. She also uses a lot of colloquialisms to help set the scene, but mixes them with more complex language. An illiterate servant might have said "a-wanted" and "a-skeered" but I doubt she'd have used "countenance," "accommodate," or "proximity." The character Zebulon Vance also has holes in his story, and what is meant as a friendly, grandfatherly figure often comes off as pretentious.

I can't recommend this as a literary or historical piece but, all in all, I did enjoy it. This hint of Appalachia and Reconstruction - with a dose of Guiding Light plus Law & Order - is a reasonable choice for anyone wanting an off-beat middle-weight read. It would make a decent companion for the plane, beach, or waiting room, or to help kill time on the bus or subway. Be wary of the blurb, expect nothing profound, and readers shouldn't be disappointed.
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