A new telling of the tale of Tom Dooley

Posted by | September 9, 2011

Award-winning author Sharyn McCrumb has just released her latest historical fiction, “The Ballad of Tom Dooley,” (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martins Press), which tells the true story behind the celebrated folk song.

McCrumb is best known for her Appalachian ‘ballad’ novels, including the New York Times best sellers ‘The Ballad of Frankie Silver’ and ‘She Walks These Hills,’ and for ‘St. Dale,’ winner of a Library of Virginia Award and featured at the National Festival of the Book. In 2008 Sharyn McCrumb was named a Virginia Woman of History for Achievement in Literature.

We’re pleased to present this excerpt from ‘Tom Dooley.’ And this Sunday we’ll feature Sharyn McCrumb reading from the book on the Appalachian History Weekly podcast.

(The narrator is the Meltons’ servant girl Pauline Foster, describing her first meeting with Tom Dula.)

A few days after I settled in, though, when the sky had cleared to a watery blue, and the wind died down a notch, I saw my cousin Ann as if she were somebody else altogether. I was outside, about to wring the neck of a chicken for our dinner, when Ann strode into the hen yard, all cloaked and bonneted as if she meant to be outdoors for more than her usual run to the privy.

“James is doing a spell of shoe-making now, so he can tend the fire. We could go off visiting this afternoon, since the weather broke.”

I wondered who she aimed to call on, since nary soul had come to the cabin in all the days I had been there, but before I could ask who she intended to grace with her presence, she froze in her tracks, looking past me, and her whole face lit up like firelight.

She was taking no more notice of me at all, so I turned to see what had left her dumbstruck, thinking maybe she had caught sight of a rainbow up over the hills. I was still looking for that rainbow a few seconds later, when it finally hit me that the wonder she had beheld wasn’t nothing but a scrawny dark-haired fellow in an old brown coat coming toward us out of the pine woods.

In a couple of heartbeats she had collected her wits about her again, and I don’t believe the young man even noticed it, but I never forgot that look, for it set me to wishing that I could want anything in this world as bad as my cousin Ann must have wanted this blue-eyed boy.

The Bates Place-- where Laura Foster was killed in May 1866--The image from this photo by the author is image duplicated on the  book cover.

The Bates Place-- where Laura Foster was killed in May 1866--The image from this photo by the author is image duplicated on the book cover.

As he got closer I could see that he was handsome enough, about the same age as we were, and he wasn’t lame or missing an arm, or missing an eye. The war had been over for a year now, and them that was coming home had already made it back, but the fighting had left its mark on most of them one way or another. If this boy had been in the war, he looked as if the last four years had touched him but lightly, and I wondered how that could be, for I did not think he had the makings of an officer. Nothing about his clothes or his countenance made me think he came from the gentry. I had known officers in my time, and there was an air of command about them that this fellow didn’t have.

There wasn’t much meat on him, but that was true of everybody in these lean times, and in his case it just sharpened his cheek bones, and made him look taller than he was. I glanced past him at the clabbered sky above the pine woods. Today, his eyes truly were bluer than the sky. He was nice enough to look at, I’ll give him that, but I didn’t see anything about him that should set a woman’s face alight, the way Ann’s did when she caught sight of him. He wasn’t a rich man, if his boots and hands were anything to go by. He looked like an ordinary dirt farmer, fortunate in his looks at twenty, but another decade or so of drink and hard work would put paid to that, as it would to Ann’s. I told myself that there is some satisfaction in having less to lose.

Before he got within a civil speaking distance of us, Ann had pushed past me, and run out of the hen yard, flinging herself in his arms, and calling out, “Tom!”

So that’s the way of it, I thought, following her out.

He held her close for a minute, before he caught sight of me, and then he let her go, still watching me warily, the way a stray dog does, to see if you are going to shy rocks at him. We neither one of us smiled. I don’t like anybody unless they give me a reason to, which mostly they don’t. Maybe he was the same.

After a minute or two of stroking his cheek with her hand and ruffling his hair, she grabbed his hand and led him back to where I was standing. “This here’s my cousin Pauline,” she told him. “She has come to work on the farm a spell while she’s getting treated by Dr. Carter.”

Laura Foster's grave (on Hwy 268 in Happy Valley, Caldwell County.)

Laura Foster's grave (on Hwy 268 in Happy Valley, Caldwell County.)

He nodded at me, but didn’t smile, so for spite I said, “Would you be Ann’s brother, sir?”

They smiled at one another then, but they could not fault me for asking, for Ann did have a brother named Tom, but I’ll bet she was never half so glad to see him as she was to see this fellow.

Ann said, “He’s Tom Dula, Pauline. Lives with his mama ’bout half a mile from my mama’s place on Reedy Branch.”

“You have the look of a soldier,” I said, not because it was true, but because men seemed to take that as a compliment.

He nodded. “Well, the 42nd North Carolina tried hard enough to make me one.”

Ann had linked arms with him, and she was leaning against him now, looking as proud as if he had won the war all by himself, instead of losing it in company with a hundred thousand other ragged souls.

“Tom was at Petersburg, and Cold Harbor,” she said.

“I went in as a company drummer, but by the end of it, the army needed fighters more than drummers.”

Ann hugged him closer to her. “And he got took prisoner at Kinston near the end, and finished up in a prison camp up in Maryland. Took him nigh on two months to make it home, and with me out here watching the road for him every day and worrying if he was safe, until my tears turned the dust on my cheeks to mud.”

Tom Dula turned to look at the empty road, and it was a moment or two before he spoke again. “I was lucky, I reckon. I lived through the Yankee prison camp, and I finally did get home. That’s more than John and Leny did.”

Ann nodded. “Strange to think of it that way, Tom. Them being dead and gone. And you were the youngest. I know your mother was near as thankful to have you back as I was.”

I just kept looking at the pair of them, neither one seeming to remember that I was standing right beside them. I kept quiet, because there wasn’t much I could think of to say, except to congratulate this fellow for outliving his brothers, which didn’t seem fitten. Besides, I was more interested in how the land lay between him and Cousin Ann, for I had not seen her sparkle with warmth or joy at all until this Rebel boy walked out of the woods.

“How long have you been back?” I said, thinking he must have arrived yesterday, from the way Ann was carrying on.

Author Sharyn McCrumb  at the Tom Dooley Museum, on the grounds of  the Whippoorwill Academy in Ferguson, NC (Wilkes County). McCrumb is holding the fiddle that supposedly belonged to Tom Dula.

Author Sharyn McCrumb at the Tom Dooley Museum, on the grounds of the Whippoorwill Academy in Ferguson, NC (Wilkes County). McCrumb is holding the fiddle that supposedly belonged to Tom Dula.

“It’ll be a year mid-summer,” said Ann, but her smile faded as she looked at me, for my speaking up had reminded her that I was watching them. She narrowed her eyes, and said, “Well, this standing around isn’t getting your chores done, Pauline. When you see to that hen, there’s washing to be done.” She looked up at Tom. “James is in the house, cobbling right now. Let’s you and I go talk in the barn where it’s warmer.”

I went back into the hen yard, watching them hurry, arm in arm, toward the barn, and I was thinking, “It’ll be warm enough wherever the two of you fetch up.” But it was all the same to me who Ann chose to carry on with. I couldn’t see anything special about this boy, worth making such a fuss over. But a minute or two later, as I wrung that chicken’s neck, I found myself thinking of the two of them entwined together in the hayloft, and, when the wind eased up a bit, I fancied I could hear laughter and soft voices.

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