Themes of The Ballad Novels

Author's Notes

The Ballad novels are a series of award-winning Southern/Appalachian novels set in the North Carolina/Tennessee mountains. These books weave together the legends, natural wonders and contemporary issues of Appalachia. Each story is built around a theme, intended to express an overall idea, and each one centers on an event or era in North Carolina history.

The Ballad Series

If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O - New York Times Notable Book 1990

"Filled with believable, complex characters, dead-on social observations, and evocative settings, this novel is too good to miss." - Atlanta Journal & Constitution

Strange days track everyone down in a small mountain town. The high school class of 1966 is holding its 20th reunion, reminding them of the contrast between who they thought they would grow up to be and who they are. For the men of the class of ‘66 the Vietnam War was their crucible, and they judge themselves on whether or not they went. For women life was a choice between two wrong answers, with the career women envying the homemakers and vice versa. When a 60’s folk singer is menaced by a soldier long thought to be dead, it seems that the past is inescapable. This is a moving look at a generation who had to make it up as they went along.

The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter

"Elegiac. McCrumb writes with quiet fire and a little mountain magic. Like every true storyteller, she has the sight." - New York Times Book Review

From the chestnut blight of the 1930's to industrial water pollution today, this novel looks at environmental issues and the issue of environmental responsibility. In this novel, sorrow comes to the mountain community in the guise of a murder/suicide on a remote farm and via a polluted river that brings death into the valley. Nora Bonesteel, with her graveyard quilt and her herbal remedies, does what she can to protect the ordinary folk from tragedy. This is a wonderful novel to trace the continuance of Celtic heritage and folkways into America's eastern mountains, which were settled by Britain's highlanders.

"Best Appalachian Novel," AWA 1992; Los Angeles Times Notable Book

She Walks These Hills - New York Times Best Seller 1995; winner of four national awards; Los Angeles Times Notable Book

"She Walks These Hills has so many hues, so many textures, so many nuances, that it's impossible in a brief space to capture its breadth and scope. The writing is eloquent and lyrical. It is a Southern novel in the grand tradition of Thomas Wolfe and Flannery O'Connor, where the land - the sense of place - overshadows and overwhelms the participants, the conceits, the motivations." - Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger

Journeys past and present converge to form this tale about a ghost, an escaped convict, and a history professor, all enmeshed in the past and lost in the vanishing wilderness of the Tennessee mountains. In this novel about journeys, college professor, Jeremy Cobb, retraces the path of a pioneer woman kidnapped by the Shawnee in 1779, and escaped convict Hiram Sorley, whose brain is stuck in the past, tries to return to a home and family that are no longer there. I see in all this a metaphor for the vanishing wilderness; just as Hiram tries to reach a vanished place and Jeremy walks a pioneer woman's trail now criss-crossed by highways and villages, we in contemporary America face a wilderness threatened by environmental abuse and urban sprawl. This book is a warning to treasure the wild spaces before we too become dreamers with nowhere to go.

"Europe stretches to the Alleghenies; America lies beyond." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

The connecting thread in She Walks These Hills is "Journeys." Everything and everyone is on a journey, beginning with the geological fact that the first journey was the one made by the mountains themselves.

The Appalachian mountains, which extend from Alabama to eastern Canada, were originally connected to the mountains of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

The mountains' family connection to Britain reinforced what the author felt about the migration patterns of the early settlers. People forced to leave a land they loved come to America, Hating the crowded, flat eastern seaboard, they migrate west until they reach the Appalachian mountains. They follow the valleys south-southwest down through Pennsylvania, and finally find a place where the land looks right, feels right. Like home. And they were right back in the same mountains they had left behind in Britain.

The Rosewood Casket - New York Times Best Seller 1996; Los Angeles Times Notable Book

"In an earlier life, McCrumb must have been a balladeer, singing of restless spirits, star-crossed lovers, and the consoling beauty of nature. Here that older folk material acts as a refrain to the more realistic narrative... The overall effect is spellbinding." - The Washington Post

The Rosewood Casket traces the cycle of the passing of the land from one group to another. From the Ice Age Animals twelve thousand years ago to the Native Americans, to the 18-century pioneers, to their descendants, and finally to the developers who build "gated communities" on the mountains.

The book begins with Cherokee chief Nancy Ward knowing that her people will lose the land. In the present, pioneer descendant Randall Stargill is dying on the mountain farm that has been in their family for two hundred years. When his four sons gather on the farm to build his coffin, they embody the latest generation to face the quandary of losing the land. This is a story of cultural politics as much as of family dynamics. The narrative makes you feel the love of the mountains and the pain of losing them. One of the sons, Clayt, is a volunteer historical re-enactor whose specialty is Daniel Boone. Through his performances we see the pioneer perspective on gaining and losing the land.

The Ballad of Frankie Silver - New York Times Best Seller 1998; New York Times Notable Book; Literary Guild Featured Alternate; SEBA Finalist "Best Novel" 1998.

"One of our most gifted authors. She has never been better in this masterful blend of fact and fiction, in which men and women -- some real, some imaginary, all convincing - play out their lives in ways both tragic and inspiring against the ghost-haunted backdrops of the Appalachians." - San Diego Union Tribune

This true story of an 18-year old frontier girl, hanged for murder in Burke County North Carolina in 1833, is a stirring tale of mountain justice, but it is also a study of contrasts between the mountain south of log cabins and trappers and the flat land south of plantations. The magic in this story is that the author brings to life people who have been dead for more than a century, making us care about the fate of one young girl who should not have been sentenced to death. An intriguing look at how the poor are treated in the justice system.

Many university classes have studied this book -- in surprising places. At the University of Colorado, Frankie Silver was taught in the Anglo-Hispanic Relations class, and the Hispanic students identified with Frankie. They say that mainstream America treats them the same way today. The Keene School in Keene New Hampshire studied the book, and those students also identified with Frankie, saying that if someone from New Hampshire committed a crime and was sent to be tried in Boston, they would be treated the same way today. (Because NH is a mountain region, and Boston was settled by flatland English.)

Appalachian Studies classes in eight states use The Ballad of Frankie Silver to highlight the cultural differences between the mountain and flatland Southern communities. It was also studied in the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia as an example of how law was practiced on the 19th century frontier, and how poor people fare in the judicial system.

The Songcatcher - National best-seller, favorite in Appalachian Studies classes; New York Times Notable Book, Literary Guild Featured Alternate, nominee for SEBA Novel of the Year, nominee for Virginia Book of the Year

"Sharyn McCrumb is noted for taking folkloric material -- specifically Appalachian ballads and stories -- and expanding them through works of fiction to relate to our modern world. She is a master at finding some inherent truths in characters and events of the old stories and updating those ideas to accommodate a modern setting." - Dirty Linen

In The Songcatcher a modern descendant of a mountain family is searching for a ballad brought to America by her ancestor, a Scotsman who fought in the American Revolution and homesteaded the frontier. The song passes from singer to singer down through the family to the present, giving readers glimpses of America's progress from the American Revolution to the present. The song is the constant, and to each succeeding generation the song will resonate with a slightly different meaning.

The Songcatcher is based on the family of author Sharyn McCrumb, and most of its incidents are true. This is a story that happened wherever the people of the British isles settled with nothing left of home but the memories. "I am chronicling the version of the story I know best: the Scots who settled the southern mountains of Appalachia. There is a kinship among all these expatriates: they are many squares of the same quilt. We are all descended from people who became strangers in a strange land. It's a distillation of the American experience."

Ghost Riders - Winner of the Wilma Dykeman Award for Literature, Tennessee Historical Society; winner of Audie Award: Best Recorded Audio Book, 2001

"A compelling Civil War tale with a chilling twist. McCrumb proves once again to be an especially fine storyteller, and her characters' observations about war in general -- and this war in particular -- resonate. As well-researched as it is told." - Library Journal

Narrated by North Carolina Governor Zebulon Baird Vance, a young lawyer from Asheville, NC who rose from humble beginnings on a frontier farm to become governor of North Carolina, and later to serve in the U.S. Congress, Ghost Riders chronicles the Civil War in the North Carolina mountains, where the war was farm-to-farm, neighbor to neighbor, up close and personal. The historical characters in this carefully-researched novel are all real people.

Being a western NC native and governor during the war was a difficult balance for Vance, because his home -- the Carolina mountains -- remained staunchly Union, refusing to send troops and offering general resistance to the Confederate government. Vance was always being told to use military force to make western North Carolina more cooperative, and he managed to evade this order enough to enrage Jefferson Davis. Although atrocities and mass murder did occur in the mountains, the peoples' lives might have been much worse had someone other than Zeb Vance been governor.

A young mountain woman, Malinda Blalock, speaks for the Union side of Civil War Appalachia. Born in Watauga County, North Carolina, Malinda was a newly-married teenager when the war began. In March 1862 when the conscription act forced the young men of Appalachia to enlist in the Confederacy, young Malinda cut her hair, dressed as a man, and enlisted in the Confederate army with her new husband Keith.

After Malinda's true identity was discovered, the Blalocks were allowed to go home to Watauga County in April 1862, and they spent the rest of the war in the North Carolina mountains, as Union guerrilla fighters, raiding the farms of Confederate sympathizers and making as much mischief as they could locally. They were hard-riding, deadly outlaws who avenged Confederate raids on their kin and neighbors, and they were never prosecuted for their crimes, even though Keith's last act of revenge, the murder of John Boyd, took place on February 8, 1866 -- nearly a year after the end of the war.

The Ballad of Tom Dooley - New York Times Bestseller

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is set near Bristol in 1935 at a murder trial in rural Wise County VA. The novel features Nora Bonesteel, aged thirteen, as a main character. Based on the Edith Maxwell trial, my novel examines the way that the national reporters covering a murder case distorted the mountain culture in order to sensationalize the story. This is a study in the politics of culture, about the stereotyping of rural areas by a cynical urban media.

Although the book is set in Depression-era Appalachia, the parallels with today's world are striking: a country in the throes of an economic depression; a world contending with the rise of political fanatics; a deadly flu epidemic; and a media culture determined to turn news stories into soap operas for the diversion of the masses.

King's Mountain

Nora Bonesteel's Christmas Past

Prayers the Devil Answers

The Unquiet Grave