REVIEW: The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb
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 Using a century of genealogical material and other historical documents, McCrumb reveals new information about the story and brings to life the personalities in the trial: the prosecutor, a former Confederate cavalryman; the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.
Dear Ms. McCrumb,
I have been eyeing your Elizabeth MacPherson books but as of yet haven’t started that series. When I saw this book on offer for review, I thought it would be a way to get a taste for your writing. After reading this one, I will definitely be looking forward to Sick of Shadows (Elizabeth MacPherson).
Not being from West Virginia nor prone to reading too much about real life paranormals, I’d never heard of the story of the Greenbrier Ghost. I avoided reading anything about it until I’d finished the novel which kept me riveted from the beginning. Starting it felt like slipping back in time – and not just to one period but the two different ones featured in the story.
The story is a masterful mix of characters and tenses. First is a gloomy presentation of an elderly black lawyer now in an colored insane asylum and desperately trying to convince a young doctor of his sanity. Then of a grieving mother’s first person presentation of her misgivings and unease about her willful daughter’s quick marriage to a man of dubious character and unsettling past and then that mother’s steadfast quest for justice.
Slowly the two characters weave the beginning of a story which will finally see them in the same courtroom as a man is tried for murder. Along the way we will learn of the hard scrabble lives of poor farmers in West Virginia, the separate but unequal facilities for the white and black mentally ill patients in the 1930s, of a headstrong young woman who won’t face her mistakes until she makes a fatal one and of the two white lawyers with colorful pasts of their own. There is grief, resignation, guilt of family members and murderer and testimony of paranormal events which boggle the mind.
The truth indeed might be stranger than fiction but with spare prose this is a story beautifully brought to life and evocatively told. B+