The Stantons and the Nortons were families in the truest, oldest sense: extended networks of kin stretching across the mountains, everyone within hiking distance. They’d come from the British Isles and settled in the Appalachians of North Carolina during the 1700s, bringing with them their dearly loved songs and their clannish ways, their ties to the land ultimately becoming as strong as their ties to one another.
So when Larkin Stanton is left parentless at birth in the 1840s, he is taken in by his cousin Arty Norton and, true to the family way, starts singing before he starts talking. As Larkin grows up, he hungrily learns every song he can, as well as the subtleties of ballad singing: how the songs are about the joys and the horrors of life, and how the best singers can produce a song that will summon tears. Going head-to-head with Arty’s brother, Hackley, the cousins’ competitions to produce the finest song soon spill over into the wooing of the finest girl in the community, Mary.
When Hackley wins Mary and then leaves to fight in the Civil War, Larkin, still too young to enlist, finds himself uncontrollably drawn to the woman who’s held his heart for years. What he does about that love defies all he has learned about family and loyalty - and reminds us that these mournful ballads didn’t come just from the imagination, but from imperfections of the heart.
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- David Woods