- The Unquiet Grave: A Novel by Sharyn McCrumb
In The Unquiet Grave, Sharyn McCrumb narrates the story of the “Greenbrier Ghost,” a piece of West Virginia lore about Zona Heaster Shue, a young woman found dead in her home in 1897, shortly after her marriage to Edward “Trout” Shue. The story is also about Zona’s mother. The mother, Mary Jane Heaster, was suspicious of Edward Shue and opposed to her daughter’s quickly planned marriage. Shortly after Zona’s death, Mary Jane claimed to have seen Zona’s ghost and reported that the spirit turned her head all the way around to prove her neck had been broken. This story was confirmed by Zona’s doctor when the body was exhumed and re-examined, and the Greenbrier Ghost became a local legend: the only known case where the testimony of a ghost led to the arrest of her killer.
McCrumb spent two years researching the truth behind this story. Though the resulting novel is a work of fiction, it stays faithful to the history. The Unquiet Grave not only sheds light on a local legend but creates a complete portrait of the region just before the turn of the century.
The book moves between Mary Jane’s narration and the reflections of James Gardner, a Black lawyer who served on Shue’s defense team. Mary Jane’s sections, written in the first person, portray her as a strong and devoted mother. Even after Zona’s death, Mary Jane never idealizes her daughter—she’s aware of Zona’s past, including the baby she gave up for adoption a year before meeting Shue, and sees how Zona’s impulsiveness is leading her into a marriage with a dangerous man. The legend tells us that Mary Jane maintained her story of seeing Zona’s ghost for the rest of her life, and McCrumb has re-created that certainty and determination in Mary Jane’s voice throughout the novel. Mary Jane is steadfast in her devotion to seeing Zona’s killer brought to justice, even as her testimony about Zona’s ghost drives a wedge between Mary Jane and her husband.
James Gardner’s sections take place in 1930, in the asylum where he finds himself following a suicide attempt. Gardner tells the story of his life and the trial to his doctor, who is testing out a “new idea going about in medical circles that talking might be useful in treating mental patients” (p. 82). These sections offer Gardner’s unique perspective as a Black man assisting the attorney William Rucker in the defense of a white man and give the reader a wealth of information about the region at the time, including race relations in post-Civil War West Virginia. Gardner remembers a time when “people didn’t make such a great distinction between the races, somehow. There wasn’t yet a colored part of town, even. It was a small enough place for folks to know one another, and that helped. . . . There were unwritten rules, of course. You knew your place and you didn’t overstep your bounds” (p. 38). He also recalls the rise of the Ku Klux Klan:
The racial divide seemed to grow wider with each passing year. Ordinary white people suddenly developed their own form of madness, although it was so universal that it passed for [End Page 84] normality: they became unaccountably afraid of their dark-skinned neighbors. New laws were passed and old ones more stringently enforced, and there were groups of hooded men who frightened people into obeying strictures without the sanction of law at all. It seemed to happen quickly—although perhaps he had simply been occupied elsewhere.(p. 39)
These chapters also include detailed accounts of the real citizens of Greenbrier County at the time, including the particularly fascinating defense attorney. Rucker was imprisoned during the Civil War for burning bridges; in addition to being a lawyer, he was a doctor who once attempted to save the life of a man after stabbing him in a fight, and he was “a...