"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.