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The Songcatcher    by Sharyn McCrumb order for
by Sharyn McCrumb
Order:  USA  Can
Dutton, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Songcatcher is an absorbing tale. It combines a modern day story set in the author's usual haunts in the Appalachians with a series of historical interludes that follow a fictional song, The Rowan Stave, through McCrumb's maternal ancestry. They begin with the most detailed, that of Malcolm McCourry, kidnapped from the isle of Islay off Scotland in 1751, to a sailor's life. He eventually settles into a bigamous second marriage as a wilderness pioneer in the N. Carolina mountains, passing on the song to his own children. As well as the recurring song, a theme threads through all these lives, based on the evocative Celtic phrase 'prayers the devil answers'. Other historical figures are Pinckney McCourry who fought for the Confederacy and remembered the song, Zeb McCourry who sang it to fanciful Yankee tourists, and Ellender McCourry who sang for an English songcatcher.

In the present day, their reclusive descendant, John Walker, is dying and his estranged daughter Lark McCourry is called home to make her peace with him. She is trying to remember the same song, overheard at a family funeral to add to her new album. Unfortunately her chartered plane crashes in the mountains before she can reach her father. She uses a cell phone to call for help and, obsessed with the song, asks the 911 operator to track it down. He calls on my favorite character in this series, the elderly Nora Bonesteel, who often sees the future and is regularly conversant with ghosts. She has a very apt analogy for ageing ... 'you moved from bright lights and many rooms into a series of ever-diminishing spaces, until at last your world was a circle of lamplight only as large as your bed.'

Ghosts are regular walk-ons in the story, from those who prepare John Walker for his death to one that keeps Deputy Joe LeDonne company after he is trapped in an old plane wreck while hiking, and another (killed in that same crash) who commands Nora not to reveal her song. This connects the old wreck and the singer who died in it to the new one with a singer trapped in it. There are humorous moments like that when the unusual Yankee general, owner of the Cloudland Hotel, advises young Zeb to remember the book of Matthew when dealing with a 'condescending bigot'. The good book says 'I was a stranger and you took me in' leading to steady pocket money for Zeb through telling of fanciful tales to tourists. Though The Songcatcher lacks the compelling mystery of others in McCrumb's repertoire, the historical connections and modern search and rescue keep the reader's interest high throughout.

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