The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb (Atria Books, 2017)
Sharyn McCrumb is, quite simply, an American gem, and one of my favorite authors. From her books set in Appalachia with strange characters who remind us of our pioneer past, to St. Dale, a masterpiece about the legendary car racer, Dale Earnhardt in McCrumb's NASCAR series, McCrumb's poetic language and attention to detail draw the reader in to enthralling stories. Such is the case with her newest novel, The Unquiet Grave set in two eras, the late 1890s when the Civil War was still a frequent topic of conversation, and 1930 already three decades into the 20th century.
McCrumb uses an unusual narrative style to tell this story of a beautiful, young bride, Zona Heaster, a mountain girl of West Virginia with a tainted past and a penchant for very bad boys. Zona has already had a secret pregnancy and her virtue is questionable when opportunity knocks at her door. Erasmus “Trout” Shue, a new blacksmith in the area, appears on the scene, and although Zona is very drawn to him, her mother, Mary Jane, feels her hackles rise when she learns that her daughter's new suitor has been twice married and once widowed already.
Despite the protestations of her simple mother, the headstrong Zona goes ahead and weds the charismatic blacksmith. On their wedding day, Mary Jane overhears a conversation that causes her alarm bells to rise further. Zona, who hadn't eaten a bite all day asks Trout to cut her a big piece of wedding cake. “He looked her up and down, and he wasn't smiling back. 'You shouldn't eat cake, Zona. You don't want to go getting fat, do you?' Zona went pale and her eyes widened. 'But I haven't eaten a morsel yet today. And anyway, you always said I was beautiful.'” (p.70) Such a response from a new groom would cause any mother to worry that her daughter had just tied up with a bully and control freak.
Though Trout and Zona don't live far from her parents, Trout insists at keeping the Heasters at a distance, not inviting them to visit the couple's new home. Mary Jane's concerns about her daughter are realized when visitors come to the Heaster home to tell Mary Jane and her husband, Jacob, that Zona has been found dead, allegedly from fainting and falling down the stairs. From the moment she hears the news, Mary Jane does not believe that a fall caused her daughter's death, a fact that is confirmed when the ghost of Zona visits her bereaved mother and points the cold finger of blame from her grave at her black-hearted blacksmith husband, Trout.
Armed with nothing more substantial than this vision of her ghostly daughter, Mary Jane marches down to the office of the county prosecutor, who despite her odd claim of seeing her daughter's accusatory phantom, believes the bereaved mother and orders an exhumation of the body which has been in the ground for one frigid month.
The other side of the narration of The Unquiet Grave is set in 1930, where a black attorney, James P.D. Gardner is languishing in an insane asylum following a failed attempt at suicide. Through his sessions with Dr. James Boozer, Gardner, who was the first black attorney to practice law in West Virginia, imparts his side of the story, that of the trial of Trout Shue, and Gardner's involvement as a black lawyer who serves in defense of a white man alongside the brilliant and legendary attorney William Parks Rucker. Boozer's goal is to heal his patient by prompting Gardner to reveal details of his long career as an attorney, starting with the ghost tale that prompted the trial of the blacksmith and going through the trial in which Rucker's strong need to get his client off almost costs an innocent young black man his life.
Although the story of Gardner in the asylum adds a different perspective on the trial of Trout Shue, I found myself in reading the novel wanting to rush through the sections set in the 1930s to return to the story of Mary Jane's quest for justice. Those sections are the stronger parts of the novel and the most compelling part of the read.
At the end of the book, McCrumb adds in the Author's Note some interesting information about the Zona Heaster Shue case. “The Green brier Ghost is West Virginia's best-known tale of the supernatural, but the incident has always been treated as folklore, a jumble of hearsay and supposition built on a handful of facts.” (p. 353) McCrumb threw herself into researching the people involved in the actual story, reconstructing facts from the most obscure documents, and then weaving in her masterful touches to make West Virginia ghost story come alive for the contemporary reader.
Having attended several conventions for aficionados of soft core mysteries called Malice Domestic, I had the honor of hearing Sharyn McCrumb speak on a panel of other distinguished mystery writers. I was awed by her then, and later on the same day I ran into her on the streets of Bethesda, Maryland where the convention is held in the spring each year. A mesmerizing figure in a flowing cape with violet eyes that rivaled those of Elizabeth Taylor, McCrumb was gracious and friendly, willing to talk about her writing with her fans on the street. I treasure the memory of meeting her, and each time I read a McCrumb, I can't help but remember what a nice person she is.
If you are unfamiliar with the canon of McCrumb, I also recommend highly many of her early works including If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, She Walks These Hills, The Rosewood Casket, and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, just to name a few.