Favorite Quote: ‘Death is quick but retribution moves at a snail’s place.’
Reviewed by Tori
The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb is an thought provoking tale of murder, revenge, the supernatural; all based on the true story of the Greenbrier Ghost, a piece of American Folklore. Through dual points of views and tenses, we are introduced to James P. D.Gardner and Mary Jane Heaster and shown the depths of a mother’s love and the extraordinary lengths she will go to for justice.
Our story begins in a segregated insane asylum in the 1930s. An older black gentleman, James P. D. Gardner, has been committed for attempting suicide and the attending physician feels that discussing the past is what holds the key to the problems of the present. James decides to tell the Dr about the time he was asked to co-chair a murder trial in West Virginia with a white union sympathizing defense attorney whose past was far more scandalous than the accused, a white Confederate veteran prosecutor, and where a ghost was the only witness to the crime. From there, we switch to Mary Jane Heaster as she leads us up to the trial. Gardner then resumes his tale, describing the events of the trial and his actions defending the accused with Mary Jane interjecting as needed.
Elva Zona Heaster was a wild child from the day she was born. Beautiful and headstrong, she refused to bow down to the dictates of parents or society and did as she pleased regardless of the outcome. While visiting family in Greenbrier County, she meets Erasmus (Edward) Trout Shue, an older handsome drifter who had recently moved there and worked as a blacksmith. Zona falls head over heels and against her mother’s advice, marries Edward. After weeks of silence, Mary Jane and her oldest son ride to the Shue’s home to check on Zona. Mary Jane eventually heads home, fearful for Zona. When riders come to the Heaster farm a few months later to inform them that Zona has died from a fall down the stairs, Mary Jane is convinced Edward killed Zona. Mary Jane goes to the local prosecutor and demands Edward be arrested for murder. She claims Zona’s ghost has come to her, showing her proof of Edward’s lies. She convinces the prosecutor to order an exhumation of the body. The examination shows foul play, Edward is arrested, and a trial date set.
When I first picked this up, I read it fell under McCrumb’s Appalachian Ballad series though I didn’t see the connection. I did enjoy the story though it is definitely drier then what I’m used to from her. Hints of McCrumb’s trademark sly humor in her formattable characters and descriptive narrative help liven it up and force it along when it faltered. I had never heard of the Greenbrier Ghost before this but found McCrumb’s weaving of legend, fact, and fiction interesting, especially her use of the mother and the defense attorney to personalize the story.
Though the story starts out ponderous, your curiously is gradually peaked with its haunting prose and straightforward telling. McCrumb’s research and meticulous attention to detail are showcased as she uses her skills and alternating points of view to paint us a picture of life in the rural South among the working class; drawing attention to the domestic violence and the social, economic, gender and race inequalities that existed. Heavily character driven, Heaster Gardner are the driving forces of the story, both compelling characters whose refusal to sugar coat their circumstances only adds to their appeal. Both are non-apologetic of what they are, accepting their place in life as simply a fact. Yet, there is intelligence, fortitude, and a quiet strength in them both, evidenced by their relentless pursuit of their goals.
The ending is predictable of course but McCrumb adds her own twists to the story, leaving readers to question some of the ethical and moral dilemmas presented. An in-depth epilogue offers more answers and questions as McCrumb lays the story and those involved to rest.
I do wish Gardner’s personal story had integrated better with the main storyline. As it was, I felt as though I was reading two distinctly different stories with no true common denominator. I also found the history lesson given on the civil war and the parts the defense attorney and the prosecutor played in it overly verbose and cumbersome. The point of that escaped me. Regardless, fans of Sharyn McCrumb and American Folklore are sure to enjoy her take on this popular piece of southern history.