Sharyn McCrumb returns to familiar territory, Appalachia, in The Unquiet Grave, a novel based on an actual trial. Set in West Virginia, in the late 19th century, the story of the Greenbriar Ghost was enough to convict a man of murder.
In 1930, James Gardner is a patient at The Lakin State Hospital for the Colored Insane. "His own particular form of insanity was to see the world exactly as it was, and to despair in silence." Following the death of his second wife, Gardner had been despondent, and tried to commit suicide, an act that landed him in the hospital. When a bored and lonely new doctor on staff sees him as a subject for investigation, Gardener, a lawyer, tells him about his role in an unusual murder trial.
But, it's the voice of Mary Jane Heaster that tells the most powerful story. Miz Heaster's daughter, Zona, was a beautiful, wild young woman. She had already had one relationship that ended badly when she met Edward "Trout" Shue, a blacksmith. By the time Miz Heaster learned about her daughter's courtship, it was too late. Zona was bound and determined to marry the handsome man, although she knew he had been married twice before. The headstrong woman saw it as her way out from a hardscrabble farm life. It certainly was a way out. Within a year, Zona was dead.
Mary Jane Heaster is determined to bring Shue to justice, knowing he killed her daughter. Night after night, she sits up, waiting to hear from Zona. When she goes to the prosecuting attorney, she tells him Zona's ghost appeared to her, saying she had been killed, that she didn't just fall down the stairs. Once the body is exhumed, Shue is brought to trial. As second chair to the defense attorney, Gardner interviews witnesses, protects one, and watches as Miz Heaster uses a ghost's testimony against her daughter's husband.
The dual narrators are a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled writer. Readers observe educated lawyers manipulated by hard-working descendants of settlers who brought their superstitions and stories from England. McCrumb carefully lays the groundwork for the trial, with a great deal of background and history about both narrators.
McCrumb's latest may be a little slow-paced, but her stories based on history are always fascinating. And, there's a twist at the end that won't let you forget The Unquiet Grave.
Sharyn McCrumb's website is www.sharynmccrumb.com
The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb. Atria Books. 2017. ISBN 9781501172875 (hardcover), 368p.
FTC Full Disclosure - I received a copy to review it for a journal.