Review: The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb (Publishes 13 Sep 2011)

Hang your head, Tom Dooley, Hang your head and cry; You killed poor Laurie Foster, And you know you’re bound to die.

Those are the lyrics to the ballad by Doc Watson and they’ll probably seem a little off if compared to the more familiar version sung by the Kingston Trio. But Doc Watson’s words are truer to the story of the real Tom Dooley (or Tom Dula), a mountain “boy,” Civil War veteran, hung for the murder of Laurie Foster.

I’ve often found fiction to be more “true” than non-fiction … and The Ballad of Tom Dooley is a case in point. The author did extensive research on the 1866 murder in the mountains of North Carolina and took those facts, plus her knowledge of the milieu in which the principal characters – just six of them — lived, and creates a tale that is true to the real story, intriguing and most enlightening.

The principal first-person narrator – Pauline Foster – in most historical accounts is but a peripheral character. Ms. McCrumb moves her center stage and portrays her as a catalyst for the crime. Pauline and the two other main female characters – both of whom are her kin – give testimony to what often happened on the home-front during the Civil War, especially in the South, to women forced to do terrible things simply to survive.

With subtlety and style, the author gives a sense of the souther-ness of Pauline’s speech without hitting readers over the head with it, as some authors do when portraying the southern dialect. And the author unfolds the story in a complicated way without overburdening readers.  The Ballad of Tom Dooley is a simple story well told, with complex, if flawed, characters. It is a wonderful book by an author at the top of her game.

Review based on publisher-provided copy of the book.

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