The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb


img_1236Reading an ARC is always a crapshoot. The reader has to be flexible and overlook things like excessive description, disjointed story arcs & grammatical errors and concentrate on the story. In Sharyn McCrumb’s The Unquiet Grave, scheduled for publication in June 2017, there’s none of the negative and ALL of the story.

I’ve read McCrumb’s work for years and remain a true fan of her Ballad novels featuring Nora Bonesteel, but also admire her ability to weave folklore and history into compelling stories. In Unquiet Grave, McCrumb tells the story of the “Greenbrier Ghost,” where we meet Zona Heaster Shue, murdered by her no-account husband “Trout” Shue, whose dirty deed is uncovered only after Zona’s mama Mary Jane Heaster claims to be visited by Zona’s ghost, who tells her what happened on the day she died.

McCrumb has taken an old story from the hills of West Virginia and put flesh on its bones through meticulous genealogical and history research. That approach to storytelling can sometimes fall flat if the author is not skilled at character development. There are no worries about that here, though, as McCrumb creates characters that pop off the page. We have Zona Heaster Shue, the beautiful “Greenbrier Ghost,” her swine of a husband, Erasmus “Trout” Shue, and Zona’s Mama, Mary Jane Heaster, who form the triangle that results in Trout Shue’s trial. Truth be told, I didn’t much like Zona or Trout, but Mary Jane? Oh my! Her dislike of Trout Shue leapt off the page, and I *felt* her cold rage when she was given the news of Zona’s death. McCrumb skillfully conveys Mary Jane’s helplessness, rage, and grief as she copes with the loss of the only beautiful thing in her life.

The companion story to the Heaster-Shue murder introduces attorney James P.D. Gardner and Dr. James Boozer. Gardner served as Second Chair in the Greenbrier Ghost trial, and lived a seemingly fulfilling and successful life and career. We find him at a crossroads, having lost his second wife and not seeing any point in continuing to live. After a suicide attempt, Gardner is committed to an asylum, where he meets Dr. Boozer, who attempts to understand Gardner and get him well through conversation. Gardner tells the story of the legal side of the Greenbrier Ghost, lending insight into 19th century law and the concept of “justice” in a small, mountain community.

By juxtaposing the two stories, McCrumb communicates the emotion of the situation through Zona, Trout, and especially Mary Jane. Gardner’s story provides the factual side of things, with the lead lawyer Mr. Rucker grasping at every straw possible to save his client. We get some insight to the tactics used by lawyers to get their clients off, as well as a quick peek at “mountain justice.”

There are one or two places throughout the story that could use some editing for length, such as the pages devoted to describing Rucker’s exploits in the Civil War, but on the whole, The Unquiet Grave is remarkable. I will be buying this in hardcover when it comes out in June. Recommended.

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