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Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Songcatcher (2001)

The Songcatcher tells the story of one North Carolina family and the song that it passed from one generation of the family to the next, a song that famous folk singer Lark McCourry hopes to find so that she can center her next record album around it. Malcolm McCourry, kidnapped in 1751 by English sailors at age nine and taken to sea, learned the song by hearing it on evenings during which the men sang ballads to entertain themselves and their shipmates. It was the kind of ghost story that an impressionable young boy would never forget, and McCourry brought the lyrics with him to America in 1759 when he decided that he was finished with life on the ocean.

Sharyn McCrumb looked to her own family history as inspiration for The Songcatcher. She discovered ancestor Malcolm McCourry while researching another book and framed this story around his real life experiences. McCrumb uses alternating sections within each chapter of the book to recount the events of Malcolm’s life that resulted in him starting a second family in the mountains of North Carolina and the real world plight of Lark McCourry who is reluctantly returning to those same mountains to see her dying father one last time.

As the book progresses from generation to generation, it becomes obvious that Lark McCourry has much in common with her ancestors. Like them, she is basically a loner who manages to keep people at a distance and who suffers a poor relationship with her father, the kind of relationship that so many first-born McCourrys experienced over the years. But the song has survived everything that the family has experienced for more than two hundred years and it is up to Lark McCourry to make sure that her father does not take it with him to the grave.

Regular readers of Sharyn McCrumb will recognize some characters from her past “ballad novels.” Sheriff Spencer Arrowood makes a relatively brief, but important, appearance in the book, and Nora Bonesteeel, an old woman who converses with the dead as easily as she does with the living, is there to help tie the McCourry generations together. Rather strangely, the book includes a side story that adds little or nothing to the main plot, a storyline involving a sheriff’s deputy who manages to get his foot trapped beneath the wreckage of an old airplane that crashed into the mountain forests decades earlier. Because the book already alternates two distinct storylines, the addition of a third one into the mix, one that really doesn’t go anywhere, is an unnecessary distraction.

Sharyn McCrumb has an interesting family history to tell and, although The Songcatcher is not one of her strongest books, it is worth a look.

Rated at: 3.0
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