The Ballad of Tom Dooley: A Ballad Novel by Sharyn McCrumb

Of all her prolific writings, I think that Sharyn McCrumb excels best with her Ballad novels.  In this one that takes its name from the well-known folk song, the reader gets to delve into the harsh world of  Wilkes County circa 1866.  It’s a year after the Civil War has ended, and having steady meals is a blessing.  Pauline Foster arrives to work for her cousin Ann Melton and her husband with the intent of earning enough of a pittance to pay the doctor for treatments of a venereal disease, and finds Ann a none-too-faithful wife – she carries on a blatant love affair with Tom Dula, a handsome ne’er-do-well recently returned from the war.  The plot could be juicy enough at this point, but it occurs that Tom is not entirely true to Ann, either – he has an occasional dalliance with her cousin Laura Foster, a plain girl who has eyes for another and who will do anything to leave her father’s farm. 

Pauline’s intense dislike for her cousin’s deeds leads her to scheming actions that make it awkward for Ann and Tom.  Needless to say, there’s a murder and its aftermath, but then you have probably guessed this already… 

Pauline’s storyline is the main viewpoint, although intertwined with it is Zeb Vance’s story – he was a former North Carolina governor and was appointed defense lawyer for Tom Dula for his murder trial.  I personally find Pauline’s tale more interesting, albeit gossipy.  Vance’s telling has more of a high-handed sound, I would guess from his standing as a politician.

Definitely read McCrumb’s notes at the end of the book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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