The Ballad of Tom Dooley
Before reading Sharyn McCrumb’s new novel, all I knew of Tom Dooley came from the famous Kingston Trio song; I didn’t even realize the tale was based on an actual murder case from the 1860s. Now, in The Ballad of Tom Dooley, McCrumb has taken details of the tragic event and has woven possible motives and circumstances around the mysterious death of Laura Foster and the hanging of Tom for the crime.
Set in the mountains of North Carolina, the novel is told mostly from the point of view of Pauline Foster, a cousin of Laura’s as well as that of Ann Foster Melton, lover of Tom Dula (the actual name of the main character). There is nothing to like about the amoral Pauline; she comes to town and moves herself in with Ann and her husband, James, in order to find a treatment for her case of syphilis. It’s from this vantage point that she sees all that goes on with the odd quadrangle of James, Ann, Tom, and Laura. Pauline’s need to see others more miserable than herself sets her as catalyst to ruin not only Ann’s life but also everyone else’s and not feel one shred of remorse. When she discovers that Tom is seeing Laura, Pauline takes the opportunity to bring down both Ann and Tom by deceit and innuendo. Interwoven in Pauline’s viewpoint is that of former governor Zebulon Vance, who is made to defend Tom against the murder charges.
McCrumb does an outstanding job building her case for what in all likelihood actually happened in this tragedy, and she gives life to those participants caught up in Laura’s murder. Unfortunately, there is not one single character with any redeeming value throughout the story. Still, McCrumb makes it easy to experience the events of one of the most celebrated murder trials in the 19th century.