Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Ballad of Tom Dooley

. . . a book review (with cats) of a ballad novel by Sharyn McCrumb

I finally received my copy of The Ballad of Tom Dooley that I'd pre-ordered from months ago. It was worth the wait. I really enjoyed the book.

When I was a teenager and folk music was in, the Kingston Trio's "Ballad of Tom Dooley" was popular. However, the song wasn't exactly historically accurate. McCrumb sets the record straight. Though her book is a novel, her meticulous scholarship shines through. That's one reason I like it.

Another reason I like the book is McCrumb's use of alternating narrators—Pauline Foster and Zebulon Vance—telling their stories in first person. Pauline Foster, a cousin to Laura Foster who was murdered and servant to cousin Ann Melton, is a villainous poor girl who feels little empathy for anyone around her.  Zebulon Vance, former governor of North Carolina, is the court appointed attorney for Tom Dula, a ne'er-do-well ex-Confederate soldier accused of murdering Laura.

None of the characters are likeable, but they're doggone interesting—and therein lies the tale. Beautiful and vain Ann Melton, although married to James Melton, has an affair with Tom, her true love. Pauline, suffering from "the pox," seeks out a doctor and the means to pay him, so she ends up working for the Meltons. Tom is not faithful to Ann. Pauline, who transmits the pox to Tom and thence to Ann, fuels Ann's jealousy of Laura, whom Tom also beds. But I don't want to give away too much of the plot, so I'll stop here.

The setting—the mountains of North Carolina just after the Civil War—isolates the characters and contributes to their hard-scrabble lives.

I like the style of the story. McCrumb lets it unwind slowly, the way an old-time story-teller might do. The dialogue is believable, and the characters take plenty of time to tell their stories. What the two narrators say and how they say it reveals much about them—Pauline's disdain for anyone and Zebulon Vance's ambitions, among other things.

I've heard Sharyn McCrumb speak of telling the truth—"But tell it slant"—in fiction. The Ballad of Tom Dooley certainly rings true. In many places, I forgot I was reading fiction and truly believed I was reading history.

If you love Appalachian literature and a rattling good story, odds are good you'll like this book as much as I do. It won't put you to sleep.

Note: While Chloe, Jim-Bob, Eddie-Puss, and Camilla posed with the book, no cats actually read it, although the above cats napped on me while I read it. 

Now,  little Chloe would like you to guess what book title she's thinking about in the picture below:

Did you guess?
It's Mew-tiny on the Bounty, of course!


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Blogger CountryDew said...

Very nice review!

2:12 PM  

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