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Book Reviews

Spotlight on: Songcatcher by Sharyn McCrumb

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Sharyn McCrumb, Songcatcher

Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad novels are mysteries only in a limited sense. Their main purpose is to evoke a sense of place. Set in the Appalachian (pronounced "Appal-at-chian," not "Appal-ate-chian") region of the Tennessee/North Carolina border, they are terrific at just that. I was born into that area, and McCrumb highlights all that is good about it, while leaving out most of the bad parts (e.g., the still-rampant racism, etc.).

In fact, the best thing I can say about them is that they bring out my sense of heritage. Even though I moved away to New England (and feel much more comfortable here), Sharyn McCrumb almost (I said almost) makes me want to go back. Her mention of cities (Jonesborough--my hometown--and Johnson City, the location of the nearest mall) and landmarks (The Parson's Table, where I got my first job) that I grew up with makes me hearken back to my time there. If only the South really were exactly as she writes it.

Songcatcher is the most evocative of all the Ballad series. It tells several stories that eventually overlap, but the central tale is that of Malcolm McCourry, Scottish immigrant to the New World. He tells his story of leaving his family, becoming a sailor, and settling in the new state of Tennessee to start a new family. A ballad called "The Rowan Stave" is vital to his tale, as it is to the book and McCrumb takes the time to show how that song is changed by being passed down over generations.

Meanwhile Lark McCourry is searching for that lost song sung by her ancestors while having to deal with a sick father that doesn't appreciate her fame as a folk/country singer. Her search doesn't really begin in full until she is trapped in a wrecked plane.

Ballad regulars Nora Bonesteel and Spencer Arrowood (pronounced "Ar-wood") also appear, but in less of a role. This is really the story of the McCourrys. Malcolm's story is so engrossing (and takes up a good portion of the book) that I would forget that I was reading a "mystery" novel. In Songcatcher, McCrumb has produced literature. And a book that any Southerner can be proud of. Many of the passages--particularly the one about the pronunciation of "Appalachia" and how it relates to trust of "outlanders"--really hit home.

McCrumb and her friends in the band Sweetwater wrote a new ballad to play the role of the one passed down for generations. It is called "The Rowan Stave" and you can hear it sung on the audiobook version of Songcatcher. A CD EP is also available which contains the song and McCrumb's own readings from the book. It can be purchased on the Sweetwater website.

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