Empty Borders

Sunday Salon—October 2, 2011

Empty Borders

The picture above is making the rounds after being posted by Reddit user Jessers25. One of the reasons I am sad that Borders is closing is that it was the closest bookstore to me, and now with no indie stores (at least none that sell new books—all used bookstores) and Barnes and Noble fairly far away, it’s extremely difficult for this reader to support brick-and-mortar bookstores.

This week I finished [amazon_link id=”0312558171″ target=”_blank” ]The Ballad of Tom Dooley[/amazon_link] by Sharyn McCrumb (review). I also thought about which books I’d like to re-read.

This weekend was a long weekend for me as I work at a Jewish high school, but I am not Jewish myself, so Rosh Hashanah became true time off for me—for my colleagues it is spent in synagogue rather than work, or at least part of it is. Saturday was cold and perfect for curling up with a cup of tea and Aunt Jane, so I dove back into [amazon_link id=”9626343613″ target=”_blank” ]Sense And Sensibility[/amazon_link] again. I listened and read along with the text with my old [amazon_link id=”0553213342″ target=”_blank” ]Bantam copy of the book[/amazon_link], which was the first copy of the book that I bought years ago and read in probably 1998 for the first time. I remember that because it was my first year teaching. I wonder if Ruben Toledo will be designing a cover for it like he did [amazon_link id=”0143105426″ target=”_blank” ]Pride and Prejudice[/amazon_link]? I just love his cover designs.

[amazon_image id=”0143105426″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Pride and Prejudice: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0143105434″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Wuthering Heights: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0143106155″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Jane Eyre: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image]

[amazon_image id=”0143105442″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Scarlet Letter: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0143106147″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Picture of Dorian Gray: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0143106163″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Dracula: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image]

Did I miss any of them? Let me know in the comments.

I am also reading [amazon_link id=”0441020674″ target=”_blank” ]Those Across the River[/amazon_link] by Christopher Buehlman for the R.I.P. Challenge. Good so far, and set in my home state of Georgia. I initially suspected that the woods near the Savoyard Plantation were populated with zombies, but I understand that they are probably werewolves instead. I will find out shortly, I suppose.

Today is Matthew Pearl’s birthday! He’s one of my favorite writers. Leave him a birthday wish on Twitter or on his Facebook fan page. I can’t wait for his next book, [amazon_link id=”1400066573″ target=”_blank” ]The Technologists[/amazon_link]. I have enjoyed his previous books:

[amazon_image id=”0812978021″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Last Dickens: A Novel[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0812970128″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Poe Shadow: A Novel[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”034549038X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Dante Club: A Novel[/amazon_image]

The Sunday Salon

Sharyn McCrumb with Tom Dula's fiddle

The Ballad of Tom Dooley, Sharyn McCrumb

[amazon_image id=”0312558171″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Ballad of Tom Dooley: A Ballad Novel[/amazon_image]Sharyn McCrumb’s latest ballad novel, [amazon_link id=”0312558171″ target=”_blank” ]The Ballad of Tom Dooley[/amazon_link], concerns perhaps the most famous of the Appalachian murder ballads, the story of how Tom Dooley, or Tom Dula as he was really known, came to be hanged for the murder of Laura Foster. Tom Dula was a ne’er-do-well Civil War veteran who was involved with Ann Foster Melton, a married woman and Laura Foster’s cousin. According to the legend, Tom led Laura to believe they were eloping, but murdered her and buried her in a shallow grave on a ridge instead. The motives for the murder have varied from Tom’s blaming Laura for giving him syphilis to avoiding marrying her because she was pregnant. However, many have doubted whether or not Tom Dula really did kill Laura Foster, particularly because he wrote a confession on the eve of his execution asserting that he alone was responsible for Laura’s death, presumably to exonerate Ann Melton, who had been arrested shortly after Tom himself and was charged in Laura’s death as well. McCrumb saw parallels between the story of Tom Dula, Ann Melton, and Laura Foster and Emily Brontë’s [amazon_link id=”0143105434″ target=”_blank” ]Wuthering Heights[/amazon_link]. When I read of this connection on McCrumb’s website, I was even more excited to read The Ballad of Tom DooleyWuthering Heights is my favorite book. And McCrumb did not disappoint me on this account.

McCrumb chooses as her two narrators Zebulon Baird Vance, who served North Carolina as governor and senator and came from the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina himself. Following the Civil War, he was unable to hold a public office for a time and practiced law until this restriction was lifted for Confederate veterans. He was appointed to defend Tom Dula and Ann Melton pro bono. He serves as the stand-in for Mr. Lockwood, the outsider who more or less frames the beginning and end of the story, although unlike Brontë’s Lockwood, he narrates some sections in the middle of the novel. McCrumb’s Nelly Dean is Pauline Foster, a cousin of Ann Melton and Laura Foster’s, who comes to Wilkes County to be treated by a doctor for her syphilis and spreads discord. McCrumb paints her as a sociopath (Nelly isn’t that bad, though I always wonder how much she is telling the truth about Catherine and Heathcliff). Pauline narrates the bulk of the story. Her motive for causing so much destruction seems to stem from envy of Ann and a sense that she has somehow been mistreated by Ann.

Ann Melton and Tom Dula serve as McCrumb’s Catherine and Heathcliff, but no Cathy Linton, Linton Heathcliff, or Hareton Earnshaw redeem the families and set things to rights in the next generation. Ann Melton is just as narcissistic and unlikeable as Catherine Earnshaw, though Tom Dula does not come off nearly as badly as Heathcliff. McCrumb even rewrites some passages from Wuthering Heights into her novel, including the famous “I am Heathcliff” speech:

“We’re just the same, Tom and me. we come from the same place, and we’re made of the same clay. And maybe the devil spit in it before God made us, but at least we belong together, him and me.”

“It seems hard lines on your husband, you feeling like that.”

“I love them both, Pauline, but not in the same way. My love for James is like that field out there that he spends half his time plowing and sowing and weeding, and all. It will change. The crops die in the winter, or dry up in a summer drought, or the soil gives out, so that you must let it lie fallow for a time and let the weeds take it. It comes and goes, that field. But Tom … Tom is like that green mountain you can see rising there in the west, holding up the sky. It never changes. It will be the same forever.” (55-56)

This story appealed to me in the same way as Wuthering Heights appeals to me: I can’t understand it. I usually have to like the characters in a book, or I can’t really enjoy the book much. This book, however, offers no one to really root for, not even Laura Foster herself, no one to care for, and no one to sympathize with, just like Wuthering Heights. Even the setting in western North Carolina calls to mind the moors of Yorkshire in the way that both are wild places untamed by men. The cover is just gorgeous. It’s a composite of a design commissioned by the publishers and a real photograph of the area where Laura Foster died taken by McCrumb herself. McCrumb’s novel is a fine achievement built upon solid research and historical basis that still manages to read like literary fiction. The gothic elements of the murder and connection to Wuthering Heights made it a perfect read for the R.I.P. Challenge.

Sharyn McCrumb with Tom Dula's fiddle
Sharyn McCrumb with Tom Dula's fiddle

Read more about this novel at McCrumb’s website.

If you have Spotify, you can listen to the Kingston Trio’s famous rendition of “Tom Dooley.”

Rating: ★★★★★

Crazy Week

Fall Sampler

I didn’t post much this week. I didn’t read much, even though I am enjoying the book I am reading—[amazon_link id=”0312558171″ target=”_blank” ]The Ballad of Tom Dooley[/amazon_link] by Sharon McCrumb. The prompts from some of the weekly memes I usually participate in didn’t appeal me much last week, and I didn’t write about today’s Musing Monday because I recently wrote on the topic already.

Another reason for the silence is that I commute to work on the bus, and Wednesday afternoon, a pedestrian was killed on my bus route. I didn’t see it happen, but I did see the police clean up afterward. It was horrible. I had some trouble concentrating on reading for a couple of days afterward, and I still keep thinking about his poor family. The driver who hit the pedestrian was not at fault, but we all make stupid mistakes, and it is a pity when we have to pay with our lives. He was just eighteen years old.

I spent the weekend making playlists in Spotify. If you have Spotify (and it’s now open for signups with no invitations necessary), then feel free to subscribe to them. They are all classical music. I decided to disconnect my Spotify account from Facebook because I don’t really want everyone knowing everything I’m listening to. Besides, isn’t it annoying to receive updates for each song someone listens to in your Facebook feed? Anyway, my Spotify profile is here, so feel free to connect to me (if you can figure out how to do that).

I am so glad fall is coming at last. The leaves are beginning to turn here in Georgia, so I imagine they are really pretty up north right now.

Update: I put the Fall Classical list on Ping, too. You have to buy the music on iTunes, but if that’s your preference over Spotify, then you can check it out there, too.

photo credit: *Micky

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Sharyn McCrumb

[amazon_image id=”0451403703″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (Onyx)[/amazon_image]Sharyn McCrumb’s second ballad novel, [amazon_link id=”0451403703″ target=”_blank” ]The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter[/amazon_link], traces the threads of several interconnected stories. The novel begins as Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and Deputy Joe LeDonne are investigating the apparent murder-suicide of the Underhill family. High school students Mark and Maggie Underhill arrived home from play rehearsal to discover their older brother Josh apparently murdered the family and then killed himself. Sheriff Arrowood calls Laura Bruce, wife of the church pastor (who is serving as a chaplain in the Gulf War at the time), who agrees to be the young Underhills’ guardian. Meanwhile, Tavy Annis, an elderly man who has lived all his life near the Little Dove River, discovers he has incurable cancer, most likely caused by pollutants deposited in the river by an upriver North Carolina paper plant. He and his friend Taw McBryde attempt to draw attention to the polluted river, but are frustrated at every turn as no one seems to want to help. Meanwhile, Laura Bruce discovers she is pregnant and anticipates the arrival of her baby while feeling lonely without her husband. Nora Bonesteel, Dark Hollow’s resident witch (for lack of a better term) is seeing disturbing images. Spencer Arrowood mourns the end of his favorite artist Naomi Judd’s career as she retires because of a hepatitis diagnosis.

If it seems that everywhere you turn in this novel, you find death, disease, and destruction, then that’s about right. Compared with the other two McCrumb novels I have read, it is darker and more gothic. Over the course of three McCrumb books in a row, I’ve learned to trust Joe LeDonne’s instincts, and when he thinks something smells fishy about the Underhill murders, I thought he was right. Their true story was quite tragic. This is also the first time I cried reading a McCrumb book. Describing why I cried might be spoilery, but suffice it to say that I think any mother would. I kept turning the pages at the same rate as I had the previous two McCrumb books I read, but I think the various threads were not as tightly woven together as in the other two books. The characters were connected by one thing or another, but in some cases, only tangentially. I enjoyed the novel, as I enjoyed the other two. It’s so exciting when you discover a new author to love, especially one as prolific as Sharyn McCrumb.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Full disclosure: I received this book via PaperBackSwap.

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesdays—August 31, 2011

WWW WednesdaysTo play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

I am currently reading Sharyn McCrumb’s [amazon_link id=”B000MWFFS8″ target=”_blank” ]The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter[/amazon_link]. I have just been tearing through her books, but this one is fairly dark! Still good. I think I should finish it before too long, and then it’s R.I.P. Time.

Speaking of which…

Peril the First

I’m doing it this year. I am not playing around. Four books or bust! Actually, I think I have a shot this year since I seem to have figured out, at nearly 40 years old, how to read a little faster. Better late than never.

I recently finished [amazon_link id=”0451197399″ target=”_blank” ]The Ballad of Frankie Silver[/amazon_link] by Sharyn McCrumb (review).

I am not sure which books I’ll read next yet, but I have several ideas. Sharyn McCrumb books count for the R.I.P. Challenge! [amazon_link id=”0345369068″ target=”_blank” ]If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O[/amazon_link] arrived in my mailbox today via PaperBackSwap, so maybe that one. Looking forward to the challenge, as I do every year.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesdays—August 30, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s Top Ten Tuesdays topic is top ten books on my TBR list for fall.

  1. Right at the tippy top is [amazon_link id=”0312558171″ target=”_blank” ]The Ballad of Tom Dooley[/amazon_link] by Sharyn McCrumb. I have been working through her other ballad novels, and I am so anxious to read this one about perhaps one of the most famous murder ballads.
  2. [amazon_link id=”1594744769″ target=”_blank” ]Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children[/amazon_link] by Ransom Riggs is on my list, too. It looks wonderful, doesn’t it?
  3. [amazon_link id=”031262168X” target=”_blank” ]The Witch’s Daughter[/amazon_link] by Paula Brackson looks good, but I don’t have it yet.
  4. I want to read [amazon_link id=”0345506014″ target=”_blank” ]Summer in the South[/amazon_link] by Cathy Holton before the weather cools too much and reading a “summer” book feels weird.
  5. [amazon_link id=”1416550550″ target=”_blank” ]The Forgotten Garden[/amazon_link] by Kate Morton is well-reviewed everywhere and perfect for the R.I.P. Challenge.
  6. [amazon_link id=”1400031702″ target=”_blank” ]The Secret History[/amazon_link] by Donna Tartt. When I made my prospective list of R.I.P. books the other day, I forgot I had this. I really want to read it this fall.
  7. [amazon_link id=”076793122X” target=”_blank” ]Dracula in Love[/amazon_link] by Karen Essex looks so good and would be perfect for R.I.P.
  8. Also, [amazon_link id=”0062049690″ target=”_blank” ]The Lantern[/amazon_link] by Deborah Lawrenson looks good.
  9. [amazon_link id=”1463612214″ target=”_blank” ]Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes[/amazon_link] by Bernard Schaffer—Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. Awesome. Good reviews, too.
  10. [amazon_link id=”0553385615″ target=”_blank” ]Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor: Being the First Jane Austen Mystery[/amazon_link] by Stephanie Barron because, after all, I am trying to complete the Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge.

You have a big list for fall?

Musing Mondays

Musing Mondays—August 29, 2011

Musing MondaysThis week’s Musing Mondays asks…

What was the last book you…
• borrowed from the library?
• bought?
• cried over?
• disliked and couldn’t finish?
• read & loved?
• got for review? (or: got in the mail?)
• gave to someone else?
• stayed up too late reading?

Ah, now these are excellent questions. I honestly can’t remember the last book I myself checked out of the library. I haven’t been in over a year. I helped Maggie check out some books on the Salem Witch Trials, I think, but I can’t recall getting anything for myself that time.

The last book I bought was probably [amazon_link id=”0439139600″ target=”_blank” ]Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire[/amazon_link] because we could not find our copy. We are always reading those to death anyway. I think some of the books in that series are on their third copy.

The last book I cried over was [amazon_link id=”1565125606″ target=”_blank” ]Water for Elephants[/amazon_link] (review). I just loved that book, and parts of it were so sad.

The last book I disliked and couldn’t finish…hmmm….I want to say that was [amazon_link id=”0758254083″ target=”_blank” ]Wuthering Bites[/amazon_link], which made me sad because 1) it was a gift, and 2) I love [amazon_link id=”0143105434″ target=”_blank” ]Wuthering Heights[/amazon_link] and would like to believe I have a sense of humor about parodies of works I love, but this one just did not grab me. I don’t think I made it into chapter 2.

The last book I read and loved was [amazon_link id=”0451202503″ target=”_blank” ]The Songcatcher[/amazon_link] (review) by Sharyn McCrumb. I really, really liked [amazon_link id=”0451197399″ target=”_blank” ]The Ballad of Frankie Silver[/amazon_link] (review), perhaps even loved it, but if we’re talking it-went-on-my-list-of-favorites love, then that was The Songcatcher.

The last book I got for review that I actually have reviewed was [amazon_link id=”1401301045″ target=”_blank” ]The Wild Rose[/amazon_link] (review). I have some other review copies in my TBR pile (or on NetGalley, which amounts to the same thing).

Does PaperBackSwap count as giving a book to someone else? I’m going to say it does, in which case I mailed copies of [amazon_link id=”0061579289″ target=”_blank” ]Adam & Eve[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”039592720X” target=”_blank” ]Interpreter of Maladies[/amazon_link] on the same day, which was August 24. Giving a book as a gift, it was probably Christmas. I gave books to the kids and a [amazon_link id=”B002FQJT3Q” target=”_blank” ]Kindle[/amazon_link] to Steve.

The last time I stayed up too late reading was probably…oh, shoot…I do this so much during the summer that it’s hard to keep track. I am going to say it was with Jennifer Donnelly’s “Rose” trilogy: [amazon_link id=”0312378025″ target=”_blank” ]The Tea Rose[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”1401307469″ target=”_blank” ]The Winter Rose[/amazon_link], and the aforementioned The Wild Rose. I ate those books up with a spoon.

The Ballad of Frankie Silver, Sharyn McCrumb

[amazon_image id=”0451197399″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Ballad of Frankie Silver[/amazon_image]Sharyn McCrumb’s ballad novel, [amazon_link id=”0451197399″ target=”_blank” ]The Ballad of Frankie Silver[/amazon_link], entwines the stories of Frankie Silver, believed to be the first woman executed by the state of North Carolina, and Fate Harkryder, a poor white mountain man about to face death in Tennessee’s electric chair. The two cases become connected in Sheriff Spencer Arrowood’s mind right after Fate Harkryder is found guilty of the murders of Emily Stanton and Mike Wilson, UNC students hiking the Appalachian Trail. When the Stanton/Wilson murders took place, Arrowood was a deputy sheriff working under Nelse Miller, sheriff at the time, but Arrowood was the official who investigated the crime. The evidence seemed rock solid, but Nelse Miller took his deputy to the graves of Charlie Silver—no, graves is not a typo because Silver was buried as the parts of him were discovered—and tells Arrowood that he has only been unsure about two cases in their neck of the woods: the case of Fate Harkryder, and the case of Frankie Silver.

Frankie Silver is the subject of an Appalachian murder ballad. She was accused and convicted of murdering her husband, Charlie Silver, with an ax and dismembering him. At the time, both were teenagers: Frankie was 18 and Charlie was 19. They had been married less than a couple of years, but they had an infant daughter, Nancy. Frankie Silver was born Frances Stewart to Isaiah and Barbara Howell Stewart. She had two brothers, Jackson, who was older than her, and Blackston, who was about 14. At the time of the murder, Isaiah and Jackson were hunting in Kentucky. Barbara and Blackston were arrested with Frankie, but they were ultimately released when no evidence of their involvement in the crime could be found.

The novel has a dual narrative. The modern storyline of Spencer Arrowood and Fate Harkryder is told in the third person limited, with a focus on Arrowood’s point of view, while the storyline of Frankie Silver is told by Burgess Gaither, a clerk of the court when she was tried and convicted, in the first person point of view. McCrumb employed this same technique in [amazon_link id=”0451202503″ target=”_blank” ]The Songcatcher[/amazon_link] (review). In her afterword, McCrumb notes that she feels Frankie Silver’s “case was really about poor people as defendants and rich people as officers of the court, about Celt versus English in developing America, about mountain people versus ‘flatlanders’ in any culture” (393). Given all the research I’ve done on the case is limited to reading this novel (so what do I know), it is a premise that seems to make sense. McCrumb carefully weaves in a story about the kind of justice men of means and reputation in society could expect as compared with that of poor mountain men. Everyone who faces a trial for a crime like Frankie Silver or Fate Harkryder have committed is entitled to representation by an attorney. The courts are supposed to be a great leveling field. Justice is supposed to be blind. But everyone knows that’s not so because ultimately, it is carried out by flawed human beings who bring their own prejudices and beliefs to bear on decisions they make. I think I might be a horrible juror because I think I would just question so much and not be able to make a decision, and I know for a fact I could never decide to send someone to death for a crime. My conscience wouldn’t allow it.

I finished this novel this morning, and I decided to walk up to our local Saturday farmer’s market and mull it over before I wrote this. I think it reminded me a bit of some sad stories in my own family. One is the story of my great-great-great-grandfather, John Jennings. He was a blacksmith in Russellville, Alabama. Russellville is a small town in Franklin County in northern Alabama. He apparently said something at a political rally or in a newspaper article (sources differ on which) that raised the ire of one George C. Almon, a candidate for office. I wonder what John Jennings said because it apparently made Almon angry enough to seek Jennings out to “give him a whipping,” according to a cousin of mine, Arthur Jennings. Arthur reports that Almon had to “take one instead,” as Jennings was a strong blacksmith, after all.

Some time later, Almon went into a hotel across the street from Jennings’s blacksmith shop and told the clerk that he needed a gun to shoot a mad dog down the street. The clerk gave it to him, and he walked across the street with it and shot John Jennings. He died a half hour later. Almon surrendered to the sheriff. His trial took place on June 28 and 29, 1875. He was acquitted of murder—it was determined he acted in self-defense.

If Arthur’s version of this story is true (it was likely passed down through the family to him), then I can’t see how what Almon did is self-defense, but he was certainly more influential politically than John Jennings. Almon prospered in Alabama government and politics. Five years after the murder, Almon was a practicing lawyer in Russellville. He was appointed a probate judge, and in 1886, he was elected to the Alabama State Senate in the 12th district.

I joked in a previous post that the Southern defense that “he needed killing” has been used successfully, but it appears to be true in this case. Newspapers covering the trial at the time seemed to think Jennings was at least partly responsible for his own murder because of whatever it was he had said. His honor besmirched, Almon demanded Jennings answer for it. Jennings’s widow Fannie apparently feared her young sons would grow up and seek revenge for their father’s murder, so she moved the family to Texas. The removal may have accomplished Fannie’s immediate goal of making sure her sons did not meet their father’s fate, but the feeling of ill will about the murder and the fact that the man responsible never answered for it still rankles, and you can hear it any time one of the family talks about it. You can read an excerpt from Memorial Record of Alabama by Hannis Taylor (1893) about Almon’s career. No mention of the murder at all, of course. He lived until 1911 and was buried in the Knights of Pythias cemetery in Russellville. Now, I have no evidence that my ancestor was necessarily poor, but it did take my cousin Jan about 30 years of genealogy research to find out this much about John Jennings’s death, whereas a quick Google search for George C. Almon reveals his prominence (but not his crime, unless you count my own blog posts about it on my genealogy blog).

So what does all that have to do with Frankie Silver or even this novel? The two stories bother me in the same way. The sense that only certain people receive justice, or even mercy (a point McCrumb makes) is something we’d like to believe is long past. Unfortunately, as McCrumb shows us in this novel, it still happens, and perhaps more often than I want to think about. William Faulkner astutely said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Rating: ★★★★★

Full disclosure: I received this book via PaperBackSwap.

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesdays—August 24, 2011

WWW WednesdaysTo play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

I am currently reading [amazon_link id=”0451197399″ target=”_blank” ]The Ballad of Frankie Silver[/amazon_link] by Sharyn McCrumb, and it’s engaging in a different way from [amazon_link id=”0451202503″ target=”_blank” ]The Songcatcher[/amazon_link], which I recently finished (review). A few choice quotes:

It is difficult to explain the law to laymen. They seem to think that justice has to do with right and wrong, with absolutes. Perhaps when we stand before our Maker on Judgment Day, His court will be a just one, but those trials held on earth are not about what happened, but about what can be proven to have happened, or what twelve citizens can be persuaded to believe happened. Sometimes I think the patron saint of lawyers ought to be Pontius Pilate, for surely he said it best: What is truth? (227)

Sounds to me like an excellent explanation of law, or at least courtroom trials. Here is another I liked:

Colonel Newland eyed me sadly. “You are dealing in justice, Mr. Gaither,” he said. “I am dealing in mercy. I hope some day—before it is too late—you find that Mrs. Silver is deserving of both.” (230)

Frankie Silver, if you didn’t know, may or may not be the first woman executed for murder in North Carolina (Wikipedia cites a news article describing an earlier case, but everyone else says she was the first—plus, I’m not sure about the source as it isn’t on a news site). She supposedly killed her husband with an ax and dismembered him. Keeping in mind that I am not finished with this book, and some new twist may change my mind, I have two theories about Frankie Silver:

  1. She did the crime because, as we say in the South, her husband needed killing. A translation for non-Southerners: He was doing something like beating her or hurting their baby or even cheating on her. Now, I don’t mean to say that people deserve to be killed. I only say that when they commit wrongdoing, and they are subsequently murdered, the “He needed killing” defense has been considered viable in some corners of the South.
  2. She didn’t do it, but she knew who did, and she was protecting them for some reason.

In either case, I think her trial, if it happened the way it is described in the book, was a gross miscarriage of justice. Even if she did the crime, some procedural mishaps should have resulted in a mistrial or she should at least have been granted an appeal.

I am not sure what I’ll read after this book. Everyone at work wants me to read [amazon_link id=”0553386794″ target=”_blank” ]A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One[/amazon_link], and I want to, but it’s so long! I want to be done with any books I pick up before the R.I.P. Challenge, and there is no way I can finish that book in a week. I am going to win that challenge this year. I mean it!

The Songcatcher, Sharyn McCrumb

[amazon_image id=”0451202503″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Songcatcher[/amazon_image]Sharyn McCrumb’s novel [amazon_link id=”0451202503″ target=”_blank” ]The Songcatcher[/amazon_link] is part of her series of ballad novels, based on Appalachian ballads (which I still maintain is one of the cleverest ideas I’ve ever heard of). The novel is the story of a family who settles in the mountain border of North Carolina and Tennessee and passes down an old Scottish ballad through the family from the eighteenth century to the modern day. The story begins as Lark McCourry, a country music singer born Linda Walker, tries to recall an old song she heard relatives sing at a gathering when she was young. John Walker, her elderly father, with whom she has a contentious relationship, becomes sick and is expected to die soon, so his housekeeper and surrogate daughter Becky Tilden calls Lark home. The story flashes back through some of Lark and John’s ancestors, starting with Malcolm McCourry, who was kidnapped and conscripted by a sailing ship at the age of nine, never to see his home on the Isle of Islay in Scotland again. Once he nears the age of twenty, he apprentices to a lawyer in Morristown, NJ. Many years later, he abandons his family and heads south with his daughter Jane and her husband to settle in the North Carolina mountains, where he establishes a second family. Before the end of the novel, Malcolm’s great-grandson Pinckney McCourry, a prisoner of war during the Civil War; Pinckney’s nephew Zebulon, an orphaned boy; Ellender McCourry, Zebulon’s daughter; and John Walker, Lark’s father and Ellender’s son, all have the opportunity to tell a part of their story and to explain how they received their family’s ballad, “The Rowan Stave.”

I absolutely adored this book from start to finish. It was so good that I didn’t want it to end. I loved Sharyn Crumb’s characters, most of whom are based on her own ancestors and retain their own names. Zebulon McCourry was her real great-grandfather, and Malcolm McCourry was her real four-times great grandfather. One of the things I loved best about this novel is the way it tackled the issue of northerners and other outsiders coming into Appalachia and making all sorts of erroneous assumptions about the intellect, culture, and beliefs of the people who settled there. McCrumb manages to touch on everything from why the Civil War led to feuds, such as the Hatfield and McCoy feud, all the way to how songcatchers came through Appalachia and took advantage of the people by collecting their folk songs, then copyrighting them for profit. Some of the writing is quite lyrical, and it is clear that McCrumb hails from a long line of born storytellers. I particularly liked Malcolm McCourry, though his decision to abandon his family in New Jersey caused friction and hurt his older children, particularly when he married a second time and supplanted his new family for his first one. I absolutely loved Zebulon’s story of tangling with a couple of condescending women from Boston. Pinckney was an intriguing figure, too. I also liked Baird Christopher, owner of a hostel in the mountains, especially as he explains how to pronounce Appalachia to a New Yorker.

The ballad itself is catchy, and it would be interesting to hear the tune, which McCrumb says in her Afterword was set to music by Shelley Stevens. It looks like you can purchase it from her website. It is the story of the mother of the Brahan seer, and explains how she found a stone that gave her son the Sight—a worthy old Scottish story.

The respect that McCrumb shows for Appalachia is, unfortunately, rare and is perfectly rendered through various encounters her characters have with outsiders. The book could, in many ways, be considered a love letter to that region and to the stories that are passed down through the generations. I am very interested in my own family history (some of which does have roots in Appalachia), so I found that element of the book particularly fascinating. Our ancestors anchor us in the world, I believe. They show us how we fit into this great chain of being and give us a sense of belonging and, in some ways, importance, which is another element McCrumb touches on when one of her characters describes the slim chance that brings any one of us into existence. If you really think about how close you have come to not ever being, your head will spin. I know I can’t help but feel grateful to my ancestors for all the choices they made that ensured I could be born one day.

If you are interested in family history, you will surely find this book as captivating as I did. Even if you aren’t interested in that sort of thing, The Songcatcher is an intriguing read and manages to maintain the feel of a mystery even without being a mystery proper. It’s a truly wonderful read. It may be hard to find, but you can order new or used copies from Amazon through associated sellers. I obtained my copy via PaperBackSwap.

Rating: ★★★★★