Kimberley M. Holloway (editor), From A Race Of Storytellers (Mercer University Press, 2003)

Having read and enjoyed Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad Novels, I practically jumped at the offer to review From A Race Of Storytellers. After all, a collection of essays on those books ought to make for some interesting reading, right?

No, not really. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, no.

The first essay, "Keepers Of The Legends," is one of the exceptions. This one is by Sharyn McCrumb. It rambles a bit, but it's not dull; it's a good sort of rambling, story-like, rather like listening to a favorite aunt recount memories of the old days. She tells of her life and her family history (learned from stories told by her parents), and at the same time describes her personal creative process. This is a good one to kick off the collection, but it sets a standard that most of the others can't live up to.

I say most; a couple of the essays rise to the top. The first novel in the series is laced — no, riddled — with balladry, inspiring the term "Ballad Novels." In "Sharyn McCrumb's Use Of Ballads In If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-o," Danny L. Miller outlines the importance of the ballad lore to the novel. Another stand-out is Joyce Compton Brown's "The World Of Sharyn McCrumb." Brown discusses the interaction of tradition and change in the novels, as well as McCrumb's fondness for abutting storylines of the present with those of the past.

The remaining writings fail to satisfy. "The Art Of Sharyn McCrumb: Anthropologist And Balladeer" talks some about the folk motifs to be found in the Ballad series. Folk motifs permeate McCrumb's fiction. There's easily a book's worth of material on that; the essay is too brief to effectively tackle the subject. "Lot In Life," while discussing the difference between those characters trapped by their assigned lot in life and those who manage to transcend it, puts inordinate significance on names — Fate Harkryder is doomed by his fate, Maggie Underhill is magpie-like, Dovey Stallard has stalled . . . with the stories set in a town called Hamelin, I kept wondering if a Pied Piper reference would be dredged up. The essays have a tendency to either read too much into the books (more than one writer tries to make a case for a symbolic Triple Goddess in Hangman's Beautiful Daughter), or to state the obvious (Nora Bonesteel is a keeper of heritage; most of the female characters are victims of a traditional society).

From A Race Of Storytellers has some good places, but when you leave one, you've got a ways to go before you reach the next.

[Tim Hoke]


"Keepers Of The Legends" can be read on-line at Sharyn McCrumb's Web site.