The Ballad of Frankie Silver: A Ballad Novel - Sharyn McCrumb

The Ballad of Frankie Silver (Ballad Series, #5)


Sharyn McCrumb

Embarrassingly, the only reason why I picked this up is that it was narrated by the inimitable Barbara Rosenblat, my favourite audiobook narrator ever to open a book. I am so glad that I did. The Ballad of Frankie Silver is a sensitive, character-filled, meticulously researched exploration of an old death that inspired a famous Appalachian folk ballad: Francis "Frankie" Silver's murder of her no-good husband and her subsequent hanging as one of the first executed in women in North Carolina.

Frankie Silver was not quite what I expected from the description. It does indeed interweave the present-day with the past, but it is the past where McCrumb focuses her energy and narrative. The two present-day cases only add a frame of reference and a sense of immediacy and connection to that long-ago crime. In the present day, Tennessee Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, laid up at home due to injuries during a shootout, is brooding on the upcoming execution of a man he helped to put behind bars. Mentally, he begins to link the case to that of Frankie Silver, an eighteen-year-old girl tried for the murder and savage decapitation of her husband in the early 1800s. Frankie was subsequently found guilty hung by the neck until dead, but her death only added to the case's sense of incompleteness-- how could she have had the sheer strength to chop up her husband so brutally? What were her last words to be when they were silenced by her father? The book quickly delves into the past, and Frankie's story is told alternately from her own point of view and that of the clerk of the court.

The strongest thing about the story is the meticulous research. McCrumb unearthed old documents, talked to descendants, even went and spoke with a prisoner on Death Row, and this really adds substance to her story. This is not a whodunit--don't go into it expecting a big puzzle or mystery, either in the present-day or long-past crime. Instead, it is a retrospective, an exploration of how easy it is for justice to go awry, a discussion of family, a sympathetic look at families torn by abuse, and a glimpse of the absolute finality of state execution.

Altogether, a very interesting book--I look forward to reading more by McCrumb.

Here's a link to the lyrics of the ballad, as well as a picture of the original printing.