Friday, December 09, 2011

Fiction Review: The Songcatcher

I recently read The Songcatcher by Sharyn McCrumb for my neighborhood book group.  Our discussion this week was interesting because our group was split on its opinion of the book; on a scale of 1 to 10, some of us rated it a 4 and others rated it a 7 (including me).

The Songcatcher follows multiple generations of a family, from Scotland to Appalachia, not only through the family members and their descendants but also through a song that originated in Scotland.  The story begins in 1751 when 10-year old Malcolm McCourry is kidnapped from his hometown on a small island in Scotland and taken on a ship.  On board, Malcolm learns a haunting ballad from a fellow Scotsman that sticks with him during his ocean voyages and later, when he gets to America.

The novel alternates between Malcolm’s life and the present day lives of several people in the eastern Tennessee/western North Carolina mountains.  The stories follow Malcom and his descendants’ lives until they eventually merge with the modern-day story of an estranged father in Appalachia and his daughter who has become a famous folk singer.  The ballad is the thread that ties all of the disparate tales together, as it is passed down through the generations.

I really enjoyed this novel, as did several others in our group.  I liked the multi-generational approach and found myself wishing I could trace my own family’s roots back that far.  I don’t know much about music, but I was also fascinated by the story of the song and the history of the Appalachian culture in general, as well as the historical settings throughout the novel.

Those who didn’t enjoy the book as much thought it was somewhat disjointed, bouncing back and forth between the different people and the different time periods.  Some found it hard to follow and keep track of everything.  I felt that the story pulled me in pretty quickly, so I guess it’s just a matter of taste – that’s what makes a book group so interesting! 

321 pages, Dutton

NOTE:  One of our members listened to the book in audio format, which included a recording of the ballad. We all agreed we would have liked to hear that, though the book would probably be harder to follow in audio.  Another member has seen the movie adaptation and said it was entirely different than the book!



  1. What a coincidence! This past Wednesday I lead a book discussion at the library of another of McCrumb's Ballad novels - The Ballad of Tom Dooley. AND... several years ago my personal book club read Songcatcher. Unfortunately, I don't remember much about that book, but I do remember not liking it all that much. The same can be said of Tom Dooley. The story was interesting and compelling, but I just don't like McCrumb as an author. If you are interested in reading more by McCrumb, she has written a whole series of BAllad novels based on the legends and folklore of the Appalachian Mountains.

  2. Wow, that is a coincidence, Pam! I hadn't heard of McCrumb before this. About half of my book group agreed with you!