cover image The Ballad of Tom Dooley

The Ballad of Tom Dooley

Sharyn McCrumb. St. Martin's/Dunne, $24.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-312-55817-8

In her latest "Ballad Novel," McCrumb (The Devil Amongst the Lawyers) delves into the history of the song made popular by the Kingston Trio. It's 1866 and no one in the mountains of North Carolina has been left unscarred by the Civil War. This includes the scores of walking wounded Rebel soldiers back from the war, but also the women they left behind, like Pauline Foster, whose encounters with soldiers and drifters have left her with a death sentence in the form of syphilis, a disease that figures prominently among the story's players. Bitter and envious of her beautiful cousin Ann Melton, Pauline nevertheless takes a job as Ann's housemaid while undergoing treatment nearby. Pauline sees patterns and understands connections that no one else sees, and she manufactures drama for her own ends%E2%80%94with tragic results. She is soon intimately involved in the romantic and sexual entanglements of Ann; Ann's husband, James, who Ann married for stability; Ann's lover Tom Dula, her passion from the time they were children; and the women's other cousin, Laura Foster, whose trysts with Tom lead to her murder. Narrated by Pauline and by Zebulon Vance, the former Confederate governor who defended Tom Dula in court, McCrumb's tale is impeccably researched. At times the deliberate accounting of facts and biography does more to show off that research than it does to advance the story, but McCrumb's novel casts light on the often bleak context surrounding characters who have become legend. (Sept.)