Tales From a Free-Range Childhood
by Donald Davis. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair Publisher, 2011.
Readers grow up seeing the world through Davis’ eyes beginning as early as when he thought his name was “Baby” up through his experience watching Hitchcock’s “Psycho” on the big screen in this collection of twenty stories.
As the older of two boys growing up in 1950s Waynesville, N.C., many of Davis’ tales center around mischief he and little brother Joe make. Imagine cow pastures, adventures in sledding, cutting each other’s hair, playing tag football in the front yard, and all manner of rough and tumble play boys get into and mix those together with a wise but stern mother and a father who laughs at every exploit. Depending on how quickly you read, the work offers a few hours or days worth of delightful, heart-warming yarns reminiscent of what one’s parents might share of their own vim and vinegar youth.
But Davis is a professional who regularly headlines at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. And he’s a retired Methodist minister. His stories meld nostalgia and mostly good clean fun (smoke, dirt, and cow manure have small roles) with life lessons. “Something Up Her Sleeve” follows Davis through several years of Valentine’s Days at his elementary school. The first year he hands out four cards to only his best pals. When his mother gets wind of this, she makes sure he addresses cards to all his classmates and walks him to school to be sure he delivers the cards instead of throwing them in the trash like he did the first year. Everyone in his classroom rips through his and her cards, calling out how many he or she got. Davis notices that one girl, Willie Freedle, received none. That finally changes one year when Miss Metcalf lets the children decorate their Valentine’s Day boxes like something out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog and something wonderful happens to Willie.
In “Ducktail,” Davis reminds us that teenagers have always rebelled against their parents when it comes to their personal appearance. Davis has the town barber style his hair in a Ducktail when his mother allows him to make the visit on his own. And many readers may especially appreciate “Braces,” about a time Davis visited his orthodontist in Asheville, missed his bus accidentally on purpose, and spent many hours exploring downtown, including stops at the S & W, the Flatiron Building, Woolworth’s, and Sears and Roebuck.
The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb. NY: Thomas Dunne Books, 2011.
This story of Tom Dooley is told from two characters’ perspectives: Zebulon Vance and Pauline Foster, both whom provide compelling new “evidence” as to the motives surrounding the murder of Laura Foster, the crime for which Civil War veteran Tom Dooley was hanged and for whom the famous ballad was written. McCrumb weaves an intriguing and compelling story wherein the lives of the two Foster women, cousins, intersect with Dooley and another cousin, Mrs. Ann Melton, with whom Pauline recently comes to live. The author found evidence of her version of this story in the extant trial records and drew upon various experts to craft accurate characterizations in coming to her conclusions.
A true page-turner, this ballad novel demonstrates McCrumb’s storytelling skills and her understanding of Appalachian people, history, and culture, especially in the mountains bordering North Carolina and Tennessee. Of special note in this novel are the subtle interplay of class and race. McCrumb points out that Vance’s origins were the same as the people he legally represented—Dooley and Melton—but that for as many “stereotypical” examples of Appalachia that we find such as Dooley and Melton (who could not read or write, but was stunningly beautiful), there are many such as Vance who defy stereotypes and lead remarkable lives to the contrary.
Several aspects of McCrumb's version will appeal to modern audiences. First, syphilis is passed around, which also means lots of sex. McCrumb doesn’t detail those explicit bits, but this aspect of nineteenth century culture is interesting because frequently we have this notion that “back in the good old days” folks were chaste. They were not. Second, toward the end, when a body is found, and Dr. George Carter is called in to examine it to determine cause of death, those with interest in forensic sciences get a peek at nineteenth century techniques, primitive though they may be compared to today’s.
Finally, McCrumb compares the relationships between Tom and Ann and Ann’s husband James to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and the narrators of the story, Zebulon and Pauline, to Bronte’s narrators, Mr. Lockwood and Nellie Dean.