The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb
Atria Books: 9/12/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
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
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
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.
My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.