My books are like Appalachian quilts…I take brightly colored scraps of legends, ballads, fragments of rural life, and local tragedy, and I piece them into a complex whole that tells not only a story, but also a deeper truth about the culture of the mountain South. — The author on her series.
This series of novels is a fascinating but uneven look at the mountain culture as filtered through the perceptions of an author who perhaps has a belief in an Appalachian culture that never was as cohesive as she believes it was. Be that as it may, this series is well worth your time to check out, and my time to tell you about. It’s of special interest to me as a descendent of Scots-Irish settlers, as the culture she’s describing is clearly that of my ancestors.
It is a series that has, as any series will, both well-written books in it and not so well-written books. What makes these novels interesting is that they are clearly intended to be autobiographical in nature. As the author notes in a lecture she calls the “Celts and the Appalachians”: ‘My family settled the western North Carolina mountains in 1790. The story of my family origin is something I learned only in the last year. I was tracking down the histories of the people of Mitchell County as part of the research for a novel I’m writing about Frankie Silver, the first woman hanged for murder in North Carolina (depicted in The Ballad of Frankie Silver). Frankie Silver came from Mitchell County. In the course of my research there, I discovered an enormous number of cousins. One of them is a professor of theology at Duke University, who has done a lot of our family research. He was able to tell my about our first ancestor who came and settled in the mountains. It’s a better story than most of mine.’
Sharyn clearly is of the Hills and desperately wants these novels to reflect both her ancestry and the culture created there. Born, bred, and still living in Appalachia, McCrumb’s mountain roots and her Scots-Irish heritage show themselves strongly in her work. It is well-known that McCrumb has said many times she would like to be remembered for her Ballad series above all else. It is obvious that McCrumb has a deep affection for these books.
Well, what will your mother say, what will your mother say What will your mother say, Pretty Peggy-O What will your mother say to know you’re going away You’re never, never, never coming back-io?
If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O is the first of the novels. It sets the pattern of the entire series in that McCrumb uses the story, motif, and characters of a ballad as the plot of her novel. In some cases, such as here, the ballad is real: ‘Pretty Peggy’o” is clearly a variant of the Scottish song ‘Bonny Lass of Fyvie’, which the Old Blind Dogs cover on their album new tricks. In other cases, such as the most autobiographical of the novels, The Songcatcher, the ballad has been created by her. It should be noted that theses are mysteries — something that at times is not terribly evident in the reading. The plot of If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O involves a has-been ’60s folksinger, Peggy Muryan, who takes up residence in Sheriff Spencer Arrowwood’s town of Hamelin, Tennessee. Her residence in this small town results in threatening letters and an abduction, and forces Arrowwood, one of the series’ continuing characters, to revisit places from the past he’d rather not go at all.
This novel serve as a good introduction to the series’ setting, the town of Hamelin, Tennessee, and the neighboring hamlet of Dark Hollow, and to some series characters: the aforementioned Arrowwood, Deputy Joe LeDonne, and police dispatcher Martha Ayers.
Nora Bonesteel, an old woman with second sight and a close mouth who lives alone — except for some very real ghosts who she can see all too well! — atop a very lonely mountain, is another one of the recurring characters that gets introduced in The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. I love this character as it suggests McCrumb’s veering into magic realism. Next in the series, this novel links together the intertwined stories of two old friends who fight the ongoing and deadly pollution of a paper company, a brother and sister who survive the slaughter of the rest of their family by another brother, a three-year-old who loses his mother, and a minister’s wife who longs for a baby while her husband is serving in the Gulf War.
She Walks These Hills is the third in the series. This novel features Harlem Sorley, a runaway convict, 63 years old; Hank “The Yank” Kretzer, a radio talk show host; Jeremy Cobb, a history graduate student; and, in the usual McCrumb manner of weaving in a character from the past, Katie Wyler, a teenager who was kidnapped by Shawnees in 1779. Their stories intertwine on the Appalachian Trail as Sorley, mentally stuck in the late ’60s as a result of Korsakoff’s Syndrome, which results from heavy drinking over a long period, tries to find his way back home to his wife, while Kretzer uses his quest as the subject of his call-in show. Meanwhile, Jeremy Cobb is obsessed with the tale of Wyler who made her escape over hundreds of miles from the Shawnees only to die on the day of her return home. This is another magnificent tale of Appalachian history and folklore, but the ballad aspect is but a minor bit of the story.
The Rosewood Casket tells the tale of unloved Tennessee patriarch Randall Stargill. He is in a coma and dying. His four sons are summoned home to the family farm to handle the details of their father’s final wishes. Interwoven with the sons’ stories is the mystery of a young girl who disappeared seventy years ago, whose bones may well be the ones that Randall wants buried with him. An interesting side-plot is Nora Bonesteel’s long-ago love affair and her present day visions of those who have passed beyond this world. (It is clear that McCrumb intends the reader to believe that Nora is indeed seeing the dead.) Throw in the shooting of Sheriff Arrowwood and you’ve got a lot going on. McCrumb’s overarching theme in The Rosewood Casket is that of who owns land and what ownership means from the viewpoints of the Native American, the pioneer (as represented by Daniel Boone), the hill families who have lived on the same property for centuries, and a property developer hoping to literally cash in on the death of Randall.
The Ballad of Frankie Silver draws upon an actual ballad and the heinous crime that was its basis. It focuses on the story of an inmate now on death row, Fate Harkryder, who is scheduled to be executed, and the story of Frankie Silver, the first woman ever hanged for murder in the United States. When Sheriff Arrowwood, the officer who arrested Harkryder, is requested to witness the execution, he begins to doubt the guilt of the inmate as new evidence long buried finally comes to light. At the same time, he becomes fascinated by the 1832 case of Frankie Silver, an 18-year-old woman convicted and executed for murdering her husband with an ax and chopping his body into pieces. The issue of justice as a matter of class standing figures strongly as the Sheriff tries to unravel the truth of both cases. In The Ballad of Frankie Silver, McCrumb has woven a tale that is one of the best of the series. Personally, I found her first two novels in this series to be weak, but each novel since those outings has become better, which is how any writer should be!
The Songcatcher is the latest in the series, and the best thus far. As I noted in that review, ‘The Songcatcher has a more straightforward plot than some of the earlier Ballad novels. In 1751 Islay (off the coast of Scotland), Malcolm McCourry is shanghaied and turned into a slave on board a ship heading to the New World. On the voyage, he hears and learns a typically haunting ballad. (I’m bein’ quite serious — is there any other kind in a mystery novel?). In the Colonies, McCourry makes the most of his ill fate and soon becomes a member of the legal profession, after apprenticing himself to a lawyer, and starts a family. He hands down the ballad to his sons, who in turn hand it down to their sons, and so forth. One does wonder how much the song in good ‘Oxford Girl’ fashion drifted in content down the centuries!’ Nora Bonesteel figures strongly in this novel — indeed, McCrumb hints that Nora herself may pass through the veil to the other world soon.
The ballad in question is ‘The Rowan Stave’, written and recorded by McCrumb, with the help of Sweetwater. Strangely enough, the woven-from-whole-cloth ballad in this novel makes more sense as a plot device than do the actual ballads used in the other novels. The Songcatcher is also the most personal of her novels, and the one where the feeling of what it means to be of Scotch-Irish descent is the strongest.
What I really want to see from McCrumb is a novel that centers on Nora Bonesteel, who is, in my opinion, the only truly fleshed-out character in the Ballad series. The story of Nora and her ancestors would be a great tale!
Do they need to be read in order? I’d say not. Your best reading will The Songcatcher, Ghost Riders (which came out long after I originally wrote this review) and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, while The Rosewood Casket is also worth reading. The first three novels hint at a writer developing her considerable skills, but don’t really work as novels. Nonetheless, they are worth a few hours’ time on a cold winter’s night with a hard wind blowing outside.
If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Scribner’s, 1990)
The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (Scribner’s, 1992)
She Walks These Hills (Scribner’s, 1994)
The Rosewood Casket (Dutton, 1996)|
The Ballad of Frankie Silver (Dutton, 1998)
The Songcatcher (Dutton, 2001)
Ghost Riders (Dutton, 2003)