BY CHRISTEE MITCHELL
Sharyn McCrumb begins her newest book, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, with a quote from In Cold Blood’s executed killer Perry Smith, “The rich never hang, only the poor and friendless.” McCrumb doesn’t even blink when asked if the book is a political statement. “Definitely,” she says. She does, however, balk at the impression many people might get, that the book is a statement against capital punishment. “It’s a socio-economic statement. Capital punishment is a dilemma, and I think you have to take every case individually. I don’t think I’m ready to make any sweeping pronouncements about capital punishment.”
The book, says McCrumb, is much more a study of the conflict between the wealthier, more genteel residents of what we think of as the Old South, and the South’s mountain people. “Here’s what I’m really doing,” McCrumb says. “A lot of people are going to see this and go, ‘oh, it’s a great whodunit,’ but to me, there have always been two Souths, and this is something we can never get Hollywood to understand. There’s that Scarlett O’Hara flatland South, like Louisville [although many still argue that Louisville is a midwestern city], and then there’s that other South-the mountain South-Ashland, Morehead, eastern Kentucky-and they’re completely different cultures.”
McCrumb is familiar with both cultures, and faithful readers of her books have become familiar with both cultures as well. “My books fall into two categories,” she says, “the Elizabeth McPherson books are my mother’s South, the flatland South. The Ballad books are the mountain South, which are my father’s people.” The Ballad of Frankie Silver is the fifth of the award-winning Ballad novels.
Like all of McCrumb’s books, The Ballad of Frankie Silver is built around the central core of a murder mystery-in this case, there are actually two murder mysteries. “Always before,” says McCrumb, “I’ve used elements of the past in my books, but the main story stayed pretty much in the present. But this time I have two stories. I work them in a frame, the way Wuthering Heights was done. You have a particular situation in the present that is paralleled by a situation in the past.”
The novel is comprised of a contemporary story, incorporating characters well-known to readers of the Ballad series, which is entirely fictional. The contemporary story, about Tennessee defendant Fate Harkryder, who is about to be executed, is an echo of the true story of Frankie Silver, the first woman hanged in North Carolina. To help him gain insight into the Fate Harkryder case, Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, a main character in all the Ballad books, begins researching the case of Frankie Silver. What Sheriff Arrowood uncovers is the true story of an eighteen-year-old mountain woman charged with the murder and dismemberment of her nineteen-year-old husband, Charlie.
McCrumb sees hew newest work as a novel of conflict and contrast. “This little girl is arrested in her log cabin way up on the top of a mountain, she is taken by the local constable forty miles down the mountain and into Morganton, which was flatland. You’ve got every possible conflict that you can have,” says McCrumb, “poor versus rich (and all the officers of the court are plantation-owning country gentlemen), rural versus urban, mountain versus flatlands. Here’s this little white, Irish-Catholic mountain girl falling into the hands of the flatland English.”
McCrumb did extensive research to ensure that the details of the Frankie Silver case reported in the book are exactly as they really happened over a century ago. “I got so caught up in this case that I felt like I was living in Morganton in 1832,” she says. In addition to researching court notes and journals, McCrumb interviewed death-row inmates and visited the field where Frankie was hanged, the ruins of the cabin, and all three of Charlie Silver’s graves. “This got to be such an obsession with me,” says McCrumb with a laugh, “that my friends started calling and asking, ‘Is she dead yet? Is it safe to call?'”
Sharyn McCrumb will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on May 17, 1998 1:00-2:30 pm. Autograph holds are available.