Day 341: Nightwoods

Cover of NightwoodsBest Book of the Week!

Charles Frazier sets his novels in backwoods North Carolina. His first novel, Cold Mountain, was set during the Civil War. His second, Thirteen Moons, went further back to the treatment of the Cherokee in the earlier part of the 19th century. Nightwoods, his third, deals with more recent times, a small mountain town in the early 1960’s.

Luce is a troubled young woman with a traumatized past who has taken up a secluded life as a caretaker for an old disused lodge across the lake from town. She is unprepared when a social worker brings her the young twin children of her murdered sister Lily, an almost feral boy and girl who refuse to speak and like to start fires.

Stubblefield is lazing away his life on the coast of Florida when he learns his grandfather has died and left him, aside from a load of debt, the lodge and a road house and a considerable number of acres on the mountain. When he goes to inspect the lodge, he is immediately smitten by the skittish Luce.

Trouble is on the way, which we know from the beginning of the novel. Bud, the husband and murderer of Luce’s sister Lily has been released from prison because of a hung jury. He is on his way to town in search of the money he stole, which he gave to Lily one night when he was drunk and she refused to give back to him. He beat her to death trying to get her to tell him where it is, and now he thinks the children know.

This novel is at times tender, as Luce blindly copes with the two damaged children in the best way she can, instinctively treating them with delicacy and kindness. At the same time, the violent Bud resembles a character from a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard novel, almost comic at times in his psychopathic ineptitude.

The result is an enthralling novel that is both a love story, not just between its characters but with the beauty of nature, and a thriller with a true feeling of danger. As usual with Frazier, the novel is wonderfully well written, with entrancing descriptions of nature.

Day 264: The Ballad of Tom Dooley

Cover for The Ballad of Tom DooleySharyn McCrumb has written several series of light mysteries, some better than others. I have usually enjoyed her “ballad” series–atmospheric, sometimes ghostly mysteries set in Appalachia and each named after a traditional folk ballad. The Ballad of Tom Dooley, despite a background of historical research (because this folk ballad is based on a true case), is not her best, however.

According to McCrumb’s notes at the end of the novel, she got interested in the story after researching it for an article and decided that the prevailing theories of the crime are not satisfying. So, she reconstructed her theory of the crime in this book. As such, it is not so much a mystery as an explication.

Most people vaguely know the story, that Tom Dooley (actually Dula) met Laura Foster “on the mountain/stabbed her with [his] knife.” Another defendant, Ann Melton, was let go. But McCrumb says most people in Wilkes County, where the crime occurred, will tell you Ann did it. To McCrumb, knowing that Ann was Tom’s long-time married lover, Tom being guilty didn’t make sense.

The novel is narrated by two characters who were actually involved in the incident: Pauline Foster, who was Ann Melton’s cousin and servant girl; and Zebulon Vance, the ex-governor and senator of pre-Civil War North Carolina who defended Tom. Pauline is an interesting character–McCrumb depicts her as a sociopath who manipulates the others and wants revenge for Ann’s slights.

The biggest fault in the novel is the narration of Zebulon Vance. At first, I thought McCrumb’s intent was to depict him as a maundering old bore, possibly even senile, as his section is so repetitive and adds so little to the narrative. It is mostly about himself and has little to do with the story. But then I read that Vance’s career was one reason McCrumb wanted to do the story. Instead of adding to it, it detracts from and drags against the impetus of the plot.

The fact is that none of the characters are likable people, and the crime isn’t particularly interesting. From the author of some haunting stories, this novel is a disappointment. If McCrumb wanted to write about Vance, she may have done better to write a biography.