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The Ballad of Tom Dooley: A Ballad Novel [Hardcover]

Sharyn McCrumb

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Book Description

Sept. 13 2011 Ballad Novels
A literary triumph—what began as a fictional re-telling of the historical account of one of the most famous mountain ballads of all time became an astonishing revelation of the real culprit responsible for the murder of Laura Foster

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.

Bringing to life the star-crossed lovers of this mountain tragedy, Sharyn McCrumb gifts understanding and compassion to her compelling tales of Appalachia, and solidifies her status as one of today's great Southern writers.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (Sept. 13 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312558171
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312558178
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 16.3 x 3.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 544 g

Product Description

Review

"McCrumb's tale is impeccably researched ... McCrumb's novel casts light on the often bleak context surrounding characters who have become legend."
--Publishers Weekly
 
"In a story with parallels to Wuthering Heights, McCrumb makes a strong case for a sociopathic servant as the catalyst for the deadly events that ensued.True to the language and culture of its time and place."
--Library Journal

About the Author

SHARYN MCCRUMB's books have been named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times, she has been named as a “Virginia Women of History” and won the Appalachian Writer of the Year Award.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  73 reviews
33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New Twist on an Old Story Oct. 14 2011
By kwb - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Unlike many of the readers that have reviewed the book, I did know about the background story for this ballad. Yes, I knew the song, but I am also very well versed in the history of the characters. I grew up in Wilkes County, have heard about the case my whole life, and actually tell the story myself as a tour guide in Wilkesboro. I was extremely excited when the book was announced because Sharyn McCrumb is one of my favorite authors, and I couldn't wait to read her treatment of this case. I was not disappointed at all!

The story McCrumb has written does deviate greatly from the version that I grew up hearing, and slightly from the way I tell it myself. I knew this ahead of time from reading background info on McCrumb's website, so I was prepared. I was fortunate enough to be able to actually meet the author and discuss the "facts" with her prior to reading the book, and I must say that her arguments made sense to me. Her conclusions about who actually killed Laura Foster and Tom's role in the episode matched what I have always believed. Pauline as the great pathological mastermind struck me as a little far-fetched (I think McCrumb gives Pauline way too much credit for intelligence), but I can accept that. And I know that many folks from the area have taken offense to the portrayal of Laura Foster as less than the virginal victim of a crime of passion. But in this case, she was what she was, and the purity that was attributed to her in death was not the reputation that followed her during her short life.

My one complaint about the book is Zebulon Vance's narratives. I understand that McCrumb is using Vance to balance the portrayal of mountain folks, and he is definitely a stark contrast to the Happy Valley crowd. But he states the same thing repeatedly throughout the first half of the book, and to be honest, once was quite enough. We got it already! After the trial and the hanging, he contributes to the story through his carrying out of Dula's last wishes, and that was important. Other than that, I could have done without his voice after he introduced himself and his role in the drama.

Finally, I have to speak up in defense of McCrumb and her characterization of the residents of Happy Valley. Many of the reviewers have taken offense at the stereotyping of backward Hillbillies in the book. And the author herself addressed her trepidation about this issue. But I am afraid that Ms. McCrumb was dead-on with her portrayal of these particular individuals. Does that mean every resident of the area at that time was totally lacking in any morals or character? NO! The reader must take into account the time and the area that is the setting for the story and not try to apply today's morality to that situation. Pauline was a nasty, cruel, vindictive tramp, but she was created by her environs and circumstance. Does that excuse her behavior (either historical or as written by McCrumb)? No! But again, she is what she is.

I enjoyed this book greatly and found the background to be well researched and presented. I am so glad that Sharyn McCrumb finally chose to tackle this well-known crime that should have long ago been forgotten.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Highly anticipated but ultimately disappointing Sept. 18 2011
By Emmy Miller - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have loved Sharyn McCrumb's work since I first discovered The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. Since then, I have followed her career with great delight and Amazon pre-orders (with the exception of her NASCAR enthusiasms, which I do not share). I was delighted to find this book when it was announced on Amazon.com and promptly pre-ordered it for my Kindle. I am sorry to say that I had to force myself to get though it.

While McCrumb's research and descriptive powers are strong, as always, the presentation of the story was not appealing or captivating, in the way that I have come to expect and enjoy from the Ballad Novels. First, I agree with the other review, who said that Pauline was a thoroughly unappealing and unsympathetic character. While McCrumb accurately describes her in the Acknowledgements as a sociopath, that was a little late to be putting a label on this characteristic. It would have been helpful to know this from the start. I kept waiting, all through the book, to find out *why* Pauline was scheming to do in Ann and Tom, by association, and why she was just such an icky person (a technical term!). I never got an answer to either question. I imagine that there were sociopaths in the 1860s, but some back-story on Pauline might have made her a character that I was more interested in, as opposed to just slogging through the book to find out what happened.

Second, I learned way more that I wanted to know about Zebulon Vance in Ghost Riders, although I thoroughly enjoyed that book and felt like the feelings, views, and motivations of the characters were well-described and accessible to the reader. In this book, though, I just got tired of him, since he mainly described his personal issues ad nauseam rather than providing any insights - personal or legal - into the events and characters of the main story.

I wish Ms. McCrumb would return to her modern day Ballad Novels characters. In particular, I would love to read Nora Bonesteel's life story. The bits and pieces in The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, She Walks These Hills (my favorite), and particularly The Rosewood Casket are intriguing and make Nora a highly sympathetic character.

As someone born and raised in east Tennessee, I have been grateful to Ms. McCrumb for giving me a wonderful new perspective on my home and its history through her novels. Despite the less-than-wonderful aspects of this current book, I remain a dedicated fan and will continue to read Ms. McCrumb's work with enjoyment and admiration.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hang Down Your Head Sept. 25 2011
By John Hood - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Telling the Tall Tale Behind the Ballad of Tom Dooley

SunPost Weekly September 22, 2011 John Hood
[...]

On May Day, 1868, in the town of Statesville, North Carolina, a man named Tom Dula was hanged for murder. The victim, a slip of a woman named Laura Foster, had been stabbed to death and hastily buried on a ridge in nearby Wilkes County. Dula was believed to have been the last person to see her alive. More damagingly, Laura had told folks she and Tom were running away together; though in fact they had no such plans. Yes, the two had a long and carnal relationship. But Dula told authorities it meant nothing. He most certainly didn't care enough to kill her.

There was of course a third party to this sordid story -- Dula's married lover Ann Melton, who was also believed to be involved in Foster's death and at the time of the hanging was in jail awaiting her own murder trial. Tom and Ann had been rutting about like wild animals since they both first learned of the birds and the bees. Since that time there'd been a Civil War (which took Tom away for awhile). Then there was Ann's marriage (which didn't take him away from her much at all). For all intents and purposes, these two were meant for each other.

On the eve of his execution, Dula performed what was perhaps the only gallant deed of his short and shiftless life: he wrote out a note claiming sole responsibility for the killing of Laura Foster. As a result, Ann was subsequently freed.

As you've by now probably guessed, the legend of Tom Dula eventually became a song called "Tom Dooley," arguably the most well-known murder ballad every written. But The Kingston Trio's version of the story is just one of the legend's many renderings; it's also factually inaccurate. Worse, it makes Dula (pronounced "Dooley" in the Appalachian foothill country dialect) sound like some sad sap killer. Turning to Sharyn McCrumb's right and riveting The Ballad of Tom Dooley (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's $24.99) however, we learn that the man probably was no such thing.

That's not to say Dula was blameless. As most folks suspect, then and now (and as McCrumb so vividly writes), it was Ann who did the killing. Dula simply buried the body. And though he was by all accounts nothing but a no account womanizer (such as it was), Dula went to his death with his head held high.

Why? Well maybe because Tom truly did love the loathsome Ann. Then again, it could simply have been a case of pragmatism. "The truth is Laura Foster wasn't worth the forfeit of two lives," McCrumb has him saying near his end, "and there seems to be no hope in saving mine."

Glowing postmortem consensus to the contrary, Dula wasn't the only one who believed Laura Foster to be pretty much worthless. The folks in the inexplicably-named Happy Valley settlement that the gangly gal called home believed her to be somewhat of a slut, despite her having stuck around to keep house and care for the mess of young siblings her mother had died and left behind. Even Laura's own father Wilson was more concerned with his stolen mare than he was with his runaway daughter when she was initially reported missing. Horses of course being something of premium for a tenant farmer in post Civil War South.

But nobody saw Laura with as much callous disregard as a certain Pauline Foster, who considered her "drab little cousin" with the "broom-straw hair" to be nothing but a means to the end of their hated cousin Ann. Not that the perilous Pauline had a "particular score to settle with" her unseemly second cousin, mind you. "[O]ther than the fact that somebody loved her," she harbored no actionable malice, and was content to watch the dowdy second cousin "bring about her own ruin." There was a point though, after Laura went missing and the busybodies and do-gooders were running around trying to ferret out where she went, when Pauline did seem almost spiteful over what was expected of her.

"People thought that we Fosters should care more than other people about what happened to our cousin, being blood kin, but if anything, I think we cared less, for we knew her better, and she wasn't much use to anybody."

That's Pauline being kind. What really put a skip into her step were the many and constant notions of how best to harm others, particularly fair-haired cousin Ann, who was the target of most of Pauline's more diabolical plans. Like a horticulturalist overseeing a bed of rare flowers, Pauline "never ran out of... little seedlings of mischief to tend to." In McCrumb's able hands, the garden literally bursts with ugly and vicious blooms. As a result, Pauline Foster becomes one of the most despicable women in fiction -- and in fact.

Yes, we must never forget this legend is indeed based on fact. That much of said fact was full of discrepancies is what compelled McCrumb to get to the truth of the deadly matter in the first place. That it took fiction for her to get there only makes everything more compelling.

This isn't the first book devoted to the ballad of Tom Dooley (John Foster West's The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story Behind the Murder of Laura Foster served as McCrumb's starting point). It's not McCrumb's first foray into backwoods gallows either. In 1998, she wrote a New York Times bestseller entitled The Ballad of Frankie Silver , which chronicled the life and death of the first woman hanged for murder in North Carolina. Here McCrumb allows her research to lead us into utter vitriol. And, aside from former North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance (who was recruited to defend both Dula and Melton) and the stoic James Melton (who was resigned to take life -- and his wife -- as it came), not a person in this story rouses even a sliver of sympathy.

Had a man retold this tale, one would think he hated women -- or at least believed most of them to be whores. That this was written by a woman removes such thoughts. Instead we're left with a very violent likelihood. The kinda very violent likelihood of which the best murder ballads are made -- and of which the best murder books are crafted.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too Much Fiction, Not Enough History Sept. 14 2011
By Just My Op - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This historical fiction is getting good reviews, so don't let me put you off reading the book if it sounds like something you'd enjoy, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to be the odd (wo)man out on this one.

I like the idea of the book - learning the story behind the ballad of Tom Dooley. The problem I had was with the telling of the story. I like more history in my historical fiction, and this one has too much speculation for me. It goes into the mind of a relatively minor person in the real story, servant to the married lover of Tom Dula, and into the mind of Zebulon Vance, eventual attorney for the defense.

There wasn't a single significant character in this book that I think I would have liked had I known them in person. Most of the story is from the point of view of Pauline Foster, the servant, and a more hateful person is hard to imagine. If I had to read one more time about Vance's political background and aspirations, I was going to have to murder him, never mind that he's been dead for more than a century.

There was too much repetition of the same events and same phrases, and it became tiresome. The characters seemed one-dimensional to me.

What is the true and complete story of Tom Dula? It is unlikely that anyone will ever know, and the author does give her reasons for why she thinks her version is correct. I don't think that I would have always drawn the same conclusions that she does, but that is why it is called historical fiction. Sharyn McCrumb has many fans, but if this book is typical of her writing, I can't count myself among them.

I was given a copy of this book by the publisher.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poor Boy, You're Bound To Die Sept. 13 2011
By Tom S. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
We all know the song, "Tom Dooley," but I didn't know it was based on an actual series of events. This novel is about those events, a powerful story of a murder that may or may not have been what it seemed. Most of all, it's the story of two people whose love was doomed by...well, find out for yourself, but Tom Dula and Ann Melton are vivid characters. I felt as though I was actually there, watching it all unfold in front of me.

I've been a fan of Sharyn McCrumb for years. She writes a series of books exploring the legends and folklore of the Appalachian region of North Carolina, and her sense of time and place is terrific ("Dooley" is set right after the Civil War). There's a kind of poetry in her descriptions of the region. If you've never read McCrumb, this new book is a great place to start. Other faves are The Devil Amongst the Lawyers: A Ballad Novel and She Walks These Hills.
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