The Ballad of Frankie Silver, by Sharyn McCrumb.
Dutton, 1998. $23.95.

Reviewed by Lana Whited

This review was published in The Roanoke Times, Roanoke, VA., on June 7, 1998 (Horizon, page 4). It is reprinted with the permission of The Roanoke Times.


“Nobody has ever written a book on Frankie Silver that I can find,” a co-worker tells Sheriff Spencer Arrowood. Arrowood has been invited to witness the electrocution of Fate Harkryder, a man he helped convict – and whose guilt he now questions. The lawman feels he can resolve his conflict by revisiting a notorious 1832 murder case – that of the first woman executed in North Carolina.

Of course, the book that plays out the sheriff's quest is the very one he needs: Montgomery County writer Sharyn McCrumb's new novel, The Ballad of Frankie Silver. This, the fifth book in McCrumb's “ballad” series, illustrates the quotation (from Pinero) which prefaces The Rosewood Casket: “the future is simply the past approached through another gate.”

In 1832, 18-year-old Frankie Silver, suspected of murdering and dismembering her husband, was taken from her home in Burke County, N.C. into Morganton. At her trial, she did not testify. At the July 1833 hanging, Silver's father preempted her final words with the admonition, ” Die with it in you, Frankie!” So without ever giving voice to her story, Frances Stewart Silver died, and a chorus of voices soon rose to tell it for her.

McCrumb wisely chooses to use Frankie's voice very selectively, always for emotional effect. The author weaves the 1830s story into the contemporary one, alternating between the third-person narrator of the Arrowood -Harkryder story and Burgess Gaither, the young Morgantonian who tells Frankie's story in first person, from his experience as Superior Court clerk. This requires a switch in voice, from modern idiom to the style of an 1830s lawyer, and McCrumb manages both voices successfully, though Gaither's takes a little getting used to.

McCrumb's research into the Frankie Silver story is extensive. She has written a social register of 1830s Morganton and a political analysis of ante-bellum Western North Carolina. On both levels, the novel is an examination of the death row experience and the social mores which keep the death penalty alive.

There's so much source material on the Frankie Silver legend that the present-day story might seem slight by comparison. But Fate Harkryder's execution date looms large, and after the Silver story concludes, the narrative heads toward Tennessee's electric chair, switching tracks with no loss of pace.

The similarities in the two plots seem a bit too tidy, and McCrumb throws in a bad joke phone call at a moment of high tension. But both Fate Harkryder's and Frankie Silver's stories ring true, and the novel ends beautifully, driving home McCrumb's own conclusion that “Frankie Silver had much to tell us about equal justice under the law, and that not much has changed since she went to her death on a bright July afternoon 164 years ago.”

Readers may feel that McCrumb's version of these events is as close to truth as we are likely to get, which is the impression the book is designed to give. But more important than factual accuracy is McCrumb's fidelity to the deep feelings Silver's story taps, feelings which led nearly three dozen prominent Morganton ladies to send a clemency petition to their governor. North Carolina folklorist and National Humanities Center Director Dan Patterson, also working on a book on Silver, maintains that ballads hinge on emotional, not literal, truth. In Tom Davenport's recent film about the case, singer Marina Trivette admits, “There are some ballads we can't sing because we can't get to the end of `em for crying.” It is this chord of feeling which McCrumb has struck, and in her capable hands, Frankie's “ballad” resonates.

Lana Whited teaches English and journalism at Ferrum College and has done extensive research on true-crime novels.

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