Book Review tom

Ballad of Tom Dooley

By: Sharyn McCrumb

Review By: Mary Ickes

Ms. McCrumb, when speaking at the Fountainhead Bookstore in Hendersonville, declared Tom Dooley’s overly-romanticized legend “. . . one smiling raccoon away from a Disney production.”  According to the Kingston Trio’s hit song (1958), Tom Dooley and Mr. Grayson loved a beautiful woman, stabbed to death by Dooley.  Grayson thwarted Dooley’s escape to Tennessee and returned him to vigilantes who hanged him from a white oak tree. 
Ms. McCrumb had no interest in writing about Tom Dooley until asked to write 1,500 words for a magazine.  The legend proved so incongruous with her initial findings, that Ms. McCrumb continued researching for a plausible explanation.  First, she culled the legend’s facts:  1) Laura Foster was stabbed to death in the mountains of Wilkes County, North Carolina;  2) Tom Dooley was hanged for her murder, and 3) Mr. Grayson did not know Laura.  Next, Ms. McCrumb identified every person involved and their roles. 
Tom Dula, not Dooley, and his two brothers were raised on a farm in Happy Valley, Wilkes County; only Tom, the youngest, survived the Civil War.  Captured at the Battle of Kinston in Lenoir County, North Carolina, he spent the last months of the war imprisoned in Maryland.
At home again, Dula announced, “I decided that I had done all the hard work . . . I intended to do in this lifetime.  From now on, I’m going to take it easy . . . and take orders from no man.”   Neither did he take orders from his mother and sister as they worked their farm while Dula played his fiddle, drank, and roamed the mountains visiting women, including Laura Foster and her cousins, Ann Melton and Pauline Foster.
All three women survived the Civil War by exchanging sexual favors for food and other necessities.  Pauline laments, “It don’t seem fair to me that soldiers get forgiven their trespasses after the peace treaty is signed, but that the rest of us are condemned to eternal guilt by the long memories of our neighbors.”  When the story opens in 1866, Laura, Ann, and Pauline are twenty-two-years old, illiterate, promiscuous, and enduring their grinding poverty with jugs of moonshine.
Laura Foster, is not a beautiful woman, but a bedraggled, overworked girl described by Pauline as . . . a little thing she was.  The top of her head wasn’t much higher than a broom handle, and I’ve seen gourds bigger around than her waist.  She had mousy brown hair, and good cheekbones in a heart-shaped face. . . .  Laura lives with her father, a tenant farmer barely supporting his family.  Her mother, exhausted from hard work, died giving birth to her fifth baby, leaving Laura to raise four siblings.    Laura is the story’s only sympathetic character.   She longs to be loved and to escape the drudgery that killed her mother.   If not for her known fate, readers might consider Laura’s plans to elope as pathetic daydreams. 
Laura’s role as the victim should guarantee her center stage, but not with Ann for a cousin: her . . . face had the sculpted perfection of Pygmalion’s marble goddess made mortal.  Her alabaster skin was offset by smoldering dark eyes and a cloud of black hair that fell in waves about her shoulders.  And she carried herself like a duchess, who had, by some error, fallen among ignorant rustics who had rudely imprisoned her.   To escape her promiscuous, alcoholic mother, Ann, age 15, married James Melton, a kindly farmer and cobbler who considered her like having a fairy maiden out of an old ballad come to stay. . . .  Too late, Melton realizes that Ann never intended to abandon Tom Dula for him and their family. 
Tom and Ann are lazy, arrogant, self-centered, passionate only about each other and “. . . indifferent to the opinions of the world in general.”  Confronted with Tom’s womanizing, Ann replies, “Sex ain’t nothing.  If you’re thirsty, it don’t matter which cup you drink out of, does it? . . . He’ll never quit me.”  Tom concurs: “We have belonged to one another all our lives, and nothing either one of us ever did with anybody else amounted to a hill of beans.”   Tom and Ann openly flaunt their relationship before everyone, especially Melton in his home. 
Into Happy Valley, March 1866, walks Pauline Foster from Watauga County, forty miles away.  Since her parents never married, Pauline’s connection to the Foster clan is tenuous, but serves her purposes.   Pauline asks to work as Ann’s hired girl for room, board, and enough salary to pay for medical care.   Ann consents, relieved to be rid of responsibility for her two young daughters and squalid house.  Pauline initially seems to be another sympathetic character, a young woman valiantly surviving tremendous hardships.  As such, readers forgive her harsh judgments stemming from envy - but not for long. Pauline’s single redeeming quality is forthright honesty about herself and her devious schemes:  “I cannot be moved. . . . Inside my head, I am as cold as a creek of snow-melt.”       
These main characters and their roles identified, Ms. McCrumb focused on the crime.   Early in the morning, on April 30, 1868, Laura Foster tied her few belongings into a bundle, stole her father’s horse, and rode toward the mountains.  She spoke with two women; the first wished her well and promised to say nothing about seeing her; Mrs. Scott, the second woman and a town meddler, reported that Laura said she was eloping with Tom Dula.   Whether Laura said so or not, Mrs. Scott’s meddling guaranteed a noose around Dula’s neck. 
Ms. McCrumb believed that Tom Dula, as he claimed to the end, was innocent, because her facts proved that he gained nothing by killing Laura Foster; neither did Ann nor Pauline.  Ms. McCrumb, therefore, diligently researched for her solution presented in this book.  If you’re wondering, Reading Friends, how Ms. McCrumb succeeded after countless researchers studied the same information before her, here’s a clue: she states in her Author’s Notes that she focused on details in the trial transcripts that her predecessors considered inconsequential.

Descended from immigrants who settled in the Smoky Mountains in 1790, Ms. McCrumb is a writing legend in her own time.  The Ballad of Tom Dooley is her ninth ballad book examining historical events in North Carolina.   Her oeuvre includes St. Dale, a retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with tourists traveling the South to honor Dale Earnhardt.  Ms. McCrumb’s books have been translated into eleven languages; she has lectured at Oxford University and the Smithsonian, and taught writers’ workshops in Paris.  Her awards include the Virginia Woman of History Citation (Library of Virginia), Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature Award, and Book of the Year Award (Appalachian Writers’ Association) for St. Dale.

View From My Catio
My literary concern this month is not what I saw, but heard.  If Mary hums, sings, chirps, croons, whistles, yodels, trills, or even thinks about Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley one more time, she will have a tuxedo cat (me) plastered on her face.  Please e-mail me at for her medical report.

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