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Magical memorial bus tour into the world of NASCAR
Sharyn McCrumb's modern-day version of "Canterbury Tales," begins on a chartered tour bus with former NASCAR driver Harley Claymore, who has signed up to lead a guided tour of Southern speedways. To his horror, he learns that the speedway tour is actually a memorial pilgrimage in honor of the late Dale Earnhardt.
"When we studied The Canterbury Tales in graduate school at Virginia Tech, I was struck with the idea of grassroots canonization," says Sharyn McCrumb. "Thomas Becket had been a Saxon in Norman England — in other words, a redneck. And as Archbishop of Canterbury, he had stood up to Henry II, opposing the Crown's infringing on the powers of the Church. That made Becket the first Intimidator.
"I was sure that the common people of England viewed Becket as a homeboy saint — their man in heaven. Within decades he had become the most popular saint in England. I thought that lately the people's saints were being popularly elected, rather than appointed by the Church. Like Elvis and Princess Diana. I toyed with that idea for years, but I never really felt moved to write the book, until Dale Earnhardt died. Earnhardt was from my state and my generation, and even though I wasn't a NASCAR fan, I thought I could understand his world and the reasons for his secular sainthood.
"Although Dale Earnhardt dropped out of the ninth grade, he died the #40 person on the Forbes List of 100 Richest Americans. Despite his wealth and fame, he continued to live a few miles from his birthplace, and to live and act as unpretentiously as ever. He is a 21st century St. Thomas a Becket: a poor boy who made good in a system stacked against him, and who retained his humility to the last.
"Sharyn McCrumb is not only the first legitimate author to try a novel around the NASCAR lifestyle, she will always be remembered as the first to do it creditably. NASCAR racing is not a sport as much as a lifestyle - among competitors but also among fans. This is the first novel that recognizes that, and translates it into an incredibly enjoyable read. St. Dale is a novel that could very well be true, and Sharyn McCrumb tells the story like no one ever has." - Kyle Petty, NASCAR Nextel Cup driver and founder of Victory Junction Camp
"A heartfelt tribute to a lifelong friend." - Junior Johnson, Legendary NASCAR driver
"Three thumbs up! In ST. DALE Sharyn McCrumb takes us on a stock car racing pilgrimage that is at once hilarious, spiritual, moving, even a little spooky, and most importantly respectful of the sport and its fans." - Jerry Bledsoe, author of "The World's Number One, Flat Out, All-Time Great Stock Car Racing Book"
"... this book of moments is required reading for anybody who still mourns Number Three – or who wonders what the fuss is about." - Kirkus Reviews
"In a daring departure from her award-winning Ballad novels, Sharyn McCrumb takes us on a magical memorial bus tour into the world of NASCAR and the canonization of the legendary stock car driver Dale Earnhardt. The novel is a triumphant joy throughout, a Canterbury Tales with speed." - Evan Hunter (Ed McBain) New York Times Best Selling Author
"Sharyn McCrumb is a powerful novelist. She has assembled a marvelous collection of characters, and all their stories are marvelous as well. Yet everything comes together as a novel that is full of magic and laughter, wonder and love." - Orson Scott Card, New York Times Bestselling Author and Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards
"God has always had a habit of showing up in the most unlikely places. Putting the Mystery in the NASCAR circuit is a stroke of genius, a crude and creative modernization of a very old story. St. Dale brings that truth home in full force. It is an earthy tale full of unearthly events. Miracles mix with the dust of every day life and remind us that we can see the Divine anywhere, it we are willing to look." - Barbara Hall, Producer of the TV series "Judging Amy" and "Joan of Arcadia"
"Filled with cultural insights and memorable characters, this novel is a wild ride through the very heart of America. Funny, smart, full of NASCAR, St. Dale is a must read . I loved it! This is a bus trip you don't want to miss." - Lee Smith, author of "The Last Girls"
"Ultimately St. Dale is a story about people's search for something to believe in. Living in a secular age has not made that yearning so away. It has simply produced a collection of unusual saints. Like Dale. None of the "pilgrims" on the tour bus ever met Earnhardt, but he touched their lives in different ways. For 18-year-old Shane McKee, the tour offers a chance to get married at a racetrack, with Earnhardt there in spirit. One fan has already experienced the first miracle, when the ghost of Earnhardt fixed her car on a lonely country road. the people on the bus tour in St. Dale are as diverse — and eccentric — as the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. New York stockbroker Terence Palmer is taking the tour because stock car racing is the only connection he has with the father he never knew. The Rev. Bill Knight, whose hobby is medieval pilgrimages, is a chaperon for a dying child on the tour. Judge Rebekah Sue Holifield is a reluctant passenger who's accompanying her sister, Justine, a die-hard Earnhardt fan.
By the end of the book, everyone on the tour has been given a miracle, even the unbelievers.
Although St. Dale seems far removed from McCrumb's previous works, the award-winning Ballad novels, she sees a common theme.
"In my novels, I try to explain Southern traditions and combat unthinking stereotypes about the South," McCrumb says. "There is no sport more maligned than NASCAR racing."
Many of the St. Dale pilgrims are patterned on characters from "The Canterbury Tales" For example, the exuberant Earnhardt fan Justine is modeled on the Wife of Bath. In The Canterbury Tales, the Wife was married to a fellow called Jankin. (Note that he turns up in the novel.) Other items cached in the narrative include: Chaucer's guide/host from the Tabard Inn, Harry Bailey; the Squire's Tale; the Franklin's Tale, and The Canon Priest and his Yeoman.
"I won't tell you specifically who or where," McCrumb says, "because I don't believe in spoon-feeding readers. St. Dale works on its own; the Chaucer connection is just a bonus." (Note: if you know anything about medieval pilgrimages, you'll find quite a few parallels there, too. I was especially pleased at being able to spot the connection between rituals at Celtic Holy Wells and NASCAR Victory Laps.)
For Sharyn McCrumb the publication of St. Dale was a wonderful adventure. She met the Earnhardt family, who liked the novel, and she became friends with a number of race car drivers, including one who gave her a ridealong in a race car at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
McCrumb says, "The coolest 24 hours — maybe of my whole life — started on October 20, 2006 with my winning the award for St. Dale from the Library of Virginia; and then being 'squire' for the Martinsville race to a NASCAR Cup driver (2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton). Saturday night October 21st — tuxedos and evening gowns in the Library of Virginia, having dinner with the winner of the Pulitzer Prize at the Awards Dinner. Twelve hours later, with my Library of Virginia Award for St. Dale stashed in the back of the car, I was out of the evening gown and into a "J.E. Burton Construction Company" tee shirt, and standing in the infield of the Martinsville Speedway for NASCAR's Subway 500 to be Ward's 'squire' for the race.
"After spending my adolescence writing term papers and avoiding any and all proms, I am now jumping hills at 100 mph with a race car driver on Virginia backroads, and it is glorious. You can imagine how frightened my teenage children are to contemplate what I might do next."
St. Dale won the 2005 People's Choice Award from the Library of Virginia, and the AWA Award for Best Appalachian novel. It is used as a supplementary text in Chaucer courses by schools in half a dozen states (that we know of.) Author Sharyn McCrumb has visited a number of schools studying her novel, sometimes taking a race car driver with her so that both Chaucer and NASCAR questions can be addressed.
"I hear wonderful stories about teaching St. Dale," McCrumb says. "Teachers write to tell me about quiet students, who suddenly lead the class discussions because this is a subject on which they are experts. Or students who had never finished a book before, and who fall in love with St. Dale, because it talks about something they're passionate about."
St. Dale was a featured title at the 2006 National Book Festival in Washington, DC.
St. Dale is taught in colleges and secondary schools in many states, usually in conjunction with the study of The Canterbury Tales. Among those organizations recently teaching St. Dale: The University of South Carolina- Beaufort; Caldwell Community College, Lenoir NC; Virginia High School, Bristol VA; Alleghany High School, Covington VA; Greenbrier East High School, Lewisburg WV.