Monday, October 03, 2011

The Ballad of Tom Dooley

The Ballad of Tom Dooley, the latest tale in Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Series, retells a story that most people only know through the old Kingston Trio song of the same name, if  they know even that much.  There is, however, a huge difference between the details of the song and what McCrumb’s research indicates really got young Mr. Tom Dula hanged for murder on May 1, 1868.  While the song paints Dooley as a man more upset that his escape has been foiled than by the murder he has committed, the novel’s Tom Dula is even colder.  The biggest difference between the song and the book, however, is that McCrumb does not believe that Dula actually killed anyone.

 McCrumb’s detailed study of the Tom Dula trial transcript led her to believe that there was a fourth person intimately involved in the “love triangle” that ended with the deaths of two of those involved in it.  McCrumb noticed the mention of a third Foster woman, Pauline, in the transcript and further research led her to believe that this is the real villain in this story.  Surprisingly, according to McCrumb’s version, Tom Dula was having his way with all three of the Foster cousins: Laura, the woman he was accused of stabbing to death; Ann Foster Melton, his longtime lover who was also implicated in the murder; and Pauline, a woman so spiteful and angry at the world that she meticulously and callously manipulated the ultimate fates of the other three.

McCrumb tells her story through the alternating voices of Pauline Foster and a lawyer for the defense, Zeb Vance.  Vance (twice governor of North Carolina, a Confederate officer, and a U.S. Senator) in his portions of the book admits more than once that he is working the case pro bono for career and political reasons of his own.  McCrumb has him repeat that he was out of practice when he took the case, and she portrays him as a man with a big ego and high expectations of great personal success, not a man who cares much about his client or the fate Dula is likely to suffer.

Sharyn McCrumb
Pauline Foster is portrayed in a similarly frank manner.  She carries the bulk of the narration and, in her own words, she exposes herself as an egocentric maniac with a great desire to punish anyone who even inadvertently slights her.  Pauline comes to the Happy Valley settlement seeking treatment for syphilis and, although her cousins barely remember who she is, she soon manages to worm herself into the most intimate parts of their lives.  Resentful of the way Anne and Tom treat her, Pauline thoroughly enjoys plotting their downfall – and if anyone else gets caught in the crossfire, so be it.

The Ballad of Tom Dooley is an interesting recasting of an old legend into a story that might well be closer to the truth than the original legend, or than even what has been commonly accepted as fact about the real case.  McCrumb, though, takes a leap of faith or two that, although they move the story along, are impossible to prove.  It all makes for an interesting, if dryly told, story that combines with the repetitiousness of some of the narration to make The Ballad of Tom Dooley into a bit of a slog to get through.

Rated at: 3.0


  1. I always thought that song was about Dr Tom Dooley. I guess I didn't pay attention to the words beyond "Tom Dooley!"

  2. The good doctor would probably get a kick out of that story.