Review: The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb

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☆➹⁀☆ 4.5 stars ☆➹⁀☆☆

What it’s about:

From New York Timesbestselling author Sharyn McCrumb comes a finely wrought novel set in nineteenth-century West Virginia, based on the true story of one of the strangest murder trials in American history—the case of the Greenbrier Ghost.

Lakin, West Virginia, 1930
Following a suicide attempt and consigned to a segregated insane asylum, attorney James P. D. Gardner finds himself under the care of Dr. James Boozer. Fresh out of medical school, Dr. Boozer is eager to try the new talking cure for insanity, and encourages his elderly patient to reminisce about his experiences as the first black attorney to practice law in nineteenth-century West Virginia. Gardner’s most memorable case was the one in which he helped to defend a white man on trial for the murder of his young bride—a case that the prosecution based on the testimony of a ghost.

Greenbrier, West Virginia, 1897
Beautiful, willful Zona Heaster has always lived in the mountains of West Virginia. Despite her mother’s misgivings, Zona marries Erasmus Trout Shue, the handsome blacksmith who has recently come to Greenbrier County. After weeks of silence from the newlyweds, riders come to the Heasters’ place to tell them that Zona has died from a fall, attributed to a recent illness. Mary Jane is determined to get justice for her daughter. A month after the funeral, she informs the county prosecutor that Zona’s ghost appeared to her, saying that she had been murdered. An autopsy, ordered by the reluctant prosecutor, confirms her claim.

The Greenbrier Ghost is renowned in American folklore, but Sharyn McCrumb is the first author to look beneath the legend to unearth the facts. Using a century of genealogical material and other historical documents, McCrumb reveals new information about the story and brings to life the personalities in the trial: the prosecutor, a former Confederate cavalryman; the defense attorney, a pro-Union bridgeburner, who nevertheless had owned slaves; and the mother of the murdered woman, who doggedly sticks to her ghost story—all seen through the eyes of a young black lawyer on the cusp of a new century, with his own tragedies yet to come.

With its unique blend of masterful research and mesmerizing folklore, illuminating the story’s fascinating and complex characters, The Unquiet Graveconfirms Sharyn McCrumb’s place among the finest Southern writers at work today.

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Guest Reviewer Tom’s Thoughts:

The Unquiet Grave is a very enjoyable novel in which author Sharyn McCrumb marvelously brings the “old South” to life. The novel is two stories really, one detailing the murder of Zona Shue from the perspective of Zona’s mother, Mary Jane, and the other revealing the golden years of Defense Attorney James PD Gardner who share’s his past and life perspective with the young doctor determining his fitness for release from suicide watch in a mental institution.

The beauty of the dual narration is that we see rural southern life from two different perspectives of race and social standing within Greenbrier County West Virginia. Mary Jane is a proud white farmer scraping to make ends meet while seeking justice for the murder of her daughter. Author McCrumb brings her beautifully to life with elegant idioms that are true to both the era and the region. Mr. Gardner is an equally proud black attorney fighting to climb the economic ladder as a professional while overcoming the odds of someone of color attaining success in that era. McCrumb’s character development of Gardner is cleverly achieved through Gardner’s own storytelling of his past.

Mary Jane is a witness for the prosecution of Zona’s accused murderer, and Gardner is the defense attorney. Plot development of the murder trial seems effortless as we alternate between Mary Jane’s present and Gardner’s retelling of the past. Throw in the fact that the prosecution’s case might need to rely on Mary Jane’s testimony based on an encounter with Zona’s ghost, and we have ample opportunity surprise as we await the trial’s resolution.

An excellent read, author McCrumb had me wondering about the history of Greenbrier resort the entire time.


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