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Title: The Ballad of Tom Dooley

Author: Sharyn McCrumb

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):

“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…The folk song, made famous by the Kingston Trio, recounts a tragedy in the North Carolina mountains after the Civil War. Laura Foster, a simple country girl, was murdered and her lover Tom Dula was hanged for the crime. The sensational elements in the case attracted national attention: a man and his beautiful, married lover accused of murdering the other-woman; the former governor of North Carolina spearheading the defense; and a noble gesture from the prisoner on the eve of his execution, saving the woman he really loved.

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 that will shock those who think they already know what happened;and may also bring belated justice to an innocent man. What seemed at first to be a sordid tale of adultery and betrayal was transformed by the new discoveries into an Appalachian Wuthering Heights. Tom Dula and Ann Melton had a profound romance spoiled by the machinations of their servant, Pauline Foster.”

Thoughts: I take umbrage with comparing The Ballad of Tom Dooley with Wuthering Heights. The two are really nothing alike, and what makes Wuthering Heights shine falls flat in Ms. McCrumb’s novel. At least there are some sympathetic characters in Wuthering Heights, whereas in The Ballad of Tom Dooley, every key character is guilty of something thereby extinguishing the reader’s sympathy before it has a chance to take root. Still, the story of Tom and Ann, Pauline and Jim, is a fascinating one, especially in light of the fact that such an event did occur and has now become legend.

While the folk song revolves around Tom Dula and Ann Melton, Ms. McCrumb’s version highlights Pauline Foster’s involvement in Laura Foster’s murder. Ms. McCrumb hints at Pauline’s sociopath tendencies through Pauline’s own admissions of never crying or getting angry but always seeking opportunities of revenge. Her inability to feel anything, whether it is love or remorse, makes her a formidable opponent, especially when one does not know Pauline’s true nature. For the reader, her matter-of-fact, emotionless approach to life is difficult to stomach at times. Interestingly enough, while Pauline frequently admits that she has no problem lying to others, she portrays herself as an honest and reliable narrator. So dishonest in her dealings with others, the reader knows she is not pretending to be someone she is not just for the sake of her audience.

The setting of The Ballad of Tom Dooley is a fascinating study of post-Civil War life in the south. The contrast between Governor Vance’s experiences and that of the women versus their men gives an intimate glimpse of just how difficult life was not only during but long after the war. Propriety was thrown out the window in the name of survival, and the consequences are not surprising but still scandalous even by today’s standards. The practicality behind the Foster women’s actions and their motives is both amusing and heart-rending.

Overall, The Ballad of Tom Dooley is an intriguing murder mystery told from the detached perspective of one with intimate knowledge of all involved. It is as much a social commentary on post-war Appalachia as it is a story on love-gone-wrong. Just know that Wuthering Heights it isn’t.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Chelsea Smialek at St. Martin’s Press for my review copy!

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