Author Sharyn McCrumb’s novel “The Ballad of Frankie Silver” is a masterful fictionalized account of the murder investigation and trial of the first woman hung by the state of North Carolina in 1833. More than just a fictionalized history, it is also a psychological thriller and social commentary on what forces were at work at the time that would prompt a seventeen-year-old mountain girl to murder her husband with an axe and then attempt to dispose of the body by chopping it up and burning it. McCrumb intersperses the tale of Frankie Silver with a modern day imagined account of a local sheriff who is haunted by the impending execution of an accused murder who the sheriff arrested and provided evidence for his conviction over twenty years ago. The sheriff, called on the be a state’s witness to the execution, is finding striking similarities between the more than one hundred year old case of Mrs Silver and the man who was now on death row. McCrumb’s portrayal of the social and status divisions between the mountain folk and townspeople in both centuries is a stark, revealing and charges that justice is served only to those who have social standing and resources. Her research into the case of Frankie Silver was prodigious , no doubt, based on the bibliography and detailed scenes of the legal twists and turns of the case. This portion of the story, however, could have been cut back somewhat for the sake of good story telling, but I suspect the author felt compelled to faithfully include everything she had learned about the case. McCrumb’s strength as a writer comes through in her description of the mountain settings, her ability to draw the inner thoughts of characters to the point that a reader may sympathize with a criminal, and in her talent for spinning an old-fashioned good tale.
McCrumb is also the author of “She Walks These Hills,” “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter,” “The Songcatcher,” and other stories set in Appalachia.