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The unforgettable life of Nancy Silver

bookRecently, when I was surfing through a depressing collection of nighttime TV programs — religious rants, psychics, cooking shows and weight loss commercials — I stopped on a “true crime” channel with a provocative title: “Dangerous Women.” Before I could punch the remote, a solemn voice announced: “Tonight, a horrifying story from a remote cove in Appalachia, we bring you the story of Frankie Silver, a woman who not only murdered her husband but burned his body in the fireplace.”

The narrator told me that the story takes place “somewhere near Morganton, N.C. in 1831.” Well, what could I do but satisfy my morbid curiosity. I got a cup of coffee and watched “the true story of Frankie Silver.”

Most of the program was “voice over.” As Frankie’s story played out in mime, a narrator related the grisly tale. Frankie and Charlie were seen as teenagers who quickly moved from newlyweds to Frankie’s pregnancy to domestic violence. Charlie, appropriately decked out in bib overalls was seen carousing in a tavern with a bevy of bad women while Frankie was at home washing, cooking and tending Nancy, her new baby. The narration hints that Charlie occasionally smacked his wife around. The narrator also supplements his tale with statements from alleged descendants, including storyteller Bobbie Macmillan. Various Stewart and Silver descendants relate anecdotes while standing near graves. (Charlie has three graves.) There were a number of “departures” from the popular version of the story. (Frankie’s hatchet bothered me. I prefer the traditional axe.) However, this gruesome tale has been “embellished” with so many fanciful details, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Now, here is the thing. The number of books, plays and poems that have been written about Frankie Silver is awesome.

Everybody from Sharyn McCrumb to Manley Wade Wellman (my personal favorite) has exploited this grim tale with mixed results. There is a dramatic work by Perry Dean Young and countless “the true story” versions. About a decade ago, the filmmaker Tom Davenport made “The Ballad of Frankie Silver,” a kind of docudrama that received a critical response that could best be termed “mixed.” In fact, the story has been the subject of every literary genre except outdoor drama, and, ironically, I have always felt that a dramatic work with an outdoor setting is possibly the best vehicle for this gory mountain tragedy.

Currently, Frankie is treated as the poster child for abused women — especially brutalized women who finally said “Enough is enough.” There appears to be supportive evidence for this interpretation since Charlie allegedly boasted that he had to sometimes show Frankie who was boss. The “Dangerous Women” episode even had a spokesman who said that Frankie was hanged because she was a victim of “a misogynist mountain culture.” That seemed to be the high point of silliness in this TV version of the Frankie Silver story, but no, there was more. The show concluded with Frankie singing her ballad/confession just prior to her hanging, and the same pompous spokesman solemnly announced that Frankie’s ballad was often sung as a “lullaby” in Appalachia. Oh, my goodness! I guess the folks at “Dangerous Women” never got around to listening to the lyrics.

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Now, all of this brings me to the latest book spawned by Frankie’s tragic tale, A Life for Nancy by Danita Stroudemire and Riley Henry. In essence, these dual authors propose to tell the story of Frankie Silver’s daughter, Nancy. It proves to be a story that is far more impressive than Frankie’s. As an infant, Nancy was snatched from her father’s breast moments before his murder. Following her mother’s execution, this infant was spirited away by her mother’s parents, the Stewarts, and raised secretly in Elijay (near Franklin). Eventually, Nancy came to live in Yancey County, where she later married David Parker and embarked on a life filled with hardship and tragedy.

Utilizing a narrative that is as unvarnished and artless as the timbers of Abe Lincoln’s cabin, Stroudemire and Henry relate an epic tale of how Nancy, a mother of five children, struggled to wrest a livelihood from her mountain farm in Yancey County while her husband is away during the war. In one instance, when hunger threatens the inhabitants of Yancey, Nancy rallies 50 women, arms them and leads an attack on the Confederate army’s stored food supply in Burnsville. Nancy’s husband is repeatedly wounded, captured, and finally dies in a field hospital in Virginia just as the war ends. Nancy, pregnant again, struggles to feed her family and emerges as a kind of beleaguered heroine in the eyes of her neighbors.

But there is another theme in A Life for Nancy. Stoudemire and Henry develop a compelling message concerning Nancy’s stigma. In the eyes of the world, she is the child of “the woman who killed her husband and was hanged.” As a child, she is taunted and ridiculed, and as an adult, her short temper sometimes prompts others to suggest that Nancy may be “like her mother.” There are times when Nancy shares their suspicions. Certainly, she often demonstrates a talent for cruelty, violence and a callous disregard for the rights of others. Yet, this same stubborn defiance also gives her positive qualities like courage, persistence and an astonishing drive for survival.

Finally, A Life for Nancy contains a remarkable collection of letters which the authors painstakingly recreate. David Parker’s letters to Nancy display both authenticity and vitality. In addition to his constant concern for the health and well-being of his family, David’s letters contain graphic details regarding battles, fatalities, food (or the lack of it) and news about his fellow soldiers, many of which were also from Yancey County.

Nancy’s journey is epic in terms of both geography and spirit. From Morganton to Elijay (near Franklin) to Yancy County to Tiger, Ga., and Burnsvile, this remarkable woman evolves from a guilt-ridden and lonely child to a loving mother. When she finds herself victimized by her neighbors who not only continue to persecute her for her mother’s crime but actually steal from her, Nancy becomes a wrathful and dangerous woman capable of intimidating an entire community. 

When she loses her home and a hundred acres of land in Yancey, she rallies her children and makes a perilous journey back to Elijay, where she launches a new life and even marries again (unhappily). Each time she is confronted by daunting odds, she survives by “doing what I have to,” which may involve stubborn perseverance, defiance and even murder.

The language of A Life for Nancy is direct and artless; indeed the narrative of the “historic novel” is often indistinguishable from the spoken language of the characters. The story of Nancy Silver Parker is inspirational because it captures the heart of a 19th century mountain woman struggling to survive war, poverty and the heedless cruelty and greed of her neighbors: a woman who is flawed, stubborn and unforgettable. 

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