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Book review: Sharyn McCrumb offers new twist on old story

By James E. Casto

"The Ballad of Tom Dooley." By Sharyn McCrumb. Thomas Dunne Books. 311 pages. $24.99.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The title of award-winning Appalachian novelist Sharyn McCrumb's newest book seems sure to catch the attention of many older readers who, like yours truly, can remember when the Kingston Trio's 1958 recording of "Tom Dooley" helped rocket that folk-singing group to musical stardom.

But McCrumb's "The Ballad of Tom Dooley" is in fact good reading not just for senior citizens but for folks of all ages.

The Kingston Trio's recording, a reworking of an old-time folk song, and McCrumb's novel share the same source -- a true-life tragedy that unfolded in the mountains of Wilkes County, N.C., shortly after the Civil War.

After serving in the Confederate Army, Thomas C. Dula (pronounced "Dooley" in the local dialect) returned home to Wilkes County, where he resumed a liaison with the beautiful Ann Melton. The two had been lovers before Dula left for the war and quickly became such again, even though she had married in the interim. Her husband, James, as the story goes, seems to have been willing to ignore her infidelities.

But Dula had a roving eye and soon began an affair with another woman, a simple country girl named Laura Foster.

One May morning in 1866, Foster stole her father's horse and left home, telling a neighbor she was eloping to Tennessee. Three months later her pregnant body was unearthed from a shallow grave not far from where she was last seen. An autopsy showed her death was the result of a single stab wound in her chest.

Shortly after Foster's body was found, Dula disappeared from Wilkes County. Convinced he had killed the pregnant girl, the authorities tracked him down in Tennessee, arrested him and brought him back to stand trial for murder.

The sensational case attracted attention from newspapers across the South and as far away as New York City.

Dula had no money to hire an attorney, but former Gov. Zebulon B. Vance agreed to represent him free of charge. Why Vance saw fit to involve himself in the case is unclear. It may be that he genuinely believed Dula was innocent. More likely he thought that defending a former Confederate solider in such a high-profile case might be politically beneficial.

Dula was convicted. Vance filed an appeal and won his client a new trial. Again Dula was convicted, and on May 1, 1869, was hanged. As he stood at the gallows facing his death, he is reported to have said, "Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn't harm a hair on the girl's head."

Despite the verdict of not one but two juries, many people in the community believed Dula was innocent. They argued that he had sacrificed his own life to protect the real murderer, an insanely jealous Ann Melton. It was even claimed that Ann on her deathbed confessed to the murder, saying she had convinced Dula, who still loved her, to help her conceal the body.

Little wonder that this story of star-crossed lovers had become the stuff of legend and song.

In a number of her previous books, Sharyn McCrumb has proved adept at taking fragments of history and legend and weaving them into a compelling fictional narrative. And that's what she has done again with "The Ballad of Tom Dooley."

McCrumb visited the sites where the story unfolded, studied the legal evidence and talked with historians and folklore experts. As a result, she came to her own conclusion about who murdered Laura Foster and has turned her findings into a highly readable retelling of the story. In the process, she has again demonstrated why she is one of today's finest Southern writers.

James E. Casto, a retired Huntington newspaperman, frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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