Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Unquiet Grave

The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb
Atria Books: 9/12/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476772875

The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb is a highly recommended historical fiction novel set in nineteenth-century West Virginia. The novel is based on the true story of the Greenbrier Ghost.

In 1930 after a failed suicide attempt, attorney James P. D. Gardner is in a segregated insane asylum located in Lakin, West Virginia. He begins a conversation with Dr. James Boozer, a young doctor who wants to try the new cure for insanity which involves talking to his patients. Dr. Boozer encourages his elderly patient to talk about his experiences as the first black attorney when he started practicing. Gardner discusses his most memorable case, a case based on the testimony of a ghost, the infamous Greenbrier Ghost.

In 1897 Erasmus Trout Shue, a white man who was a blacksmith, was on trial in Greenbrier, West Virginia, for killing his bride, Zona Heaster.  After they were married and Zona's mother, Mary Jane Heaster hadn't heard anything from her daughter, she finds out Zona has died.  Mary Jane is sure her new husband had a hand in Zona's death and prays for a sign, which she receives. Then she tells the county prosecutor that Zona’s ghost has appeared to her several times, saying that she had been murdered. An exhumation and autopsy, ordered by the prosecutor, confirms her claim. At that time, Gardner was apprenticed to barrister William Rucker and acted as second chair in the defense of Shue at his murder trial.

The premise of The Unquiet Grave is intriguing and clearly there was a lot of research that went into incorporating the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost in the story. The quality of the writing is excellent and the characters are well developed. What made the narrative suffer was the interview sections between the doctor and Gardiner in the 1930s, which, while they clearly perform a purpose in the novel, they also slow it down and become, well, a bit boring, especially in comparison to Mrs. Heaster's story. I found myself pushing my way through those chapters to get to the other chapters, which I found more interesting. It should also be noted that the humor McCrumb has in her other books is absent here.

The novel does have some interesting historical insights into Gardner's struggles as a black lawyer in the south and his experience in a segregated asylum in the 1930's. Also Mrs. Heaster's fight for justice for Zona is truly a fight against a justice system controlled by men. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

No comments: