Friday Book Whimsy: If Ever I Return Pretty Peggy-O

If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O is one for the oldies-but-goodies department. The book is the first in author Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad series, and one of the best. The books in the series all take place in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, in a small town in a holler, with a small-town sheriff who grew up in the community.

Sheriff Spencer Arrowood’s job is mostly arresting drunk drivers or stopping bar fights. The town receives a jolt of excitement when Peggy Muryan purchases one of the old mansions in town. Peggy was a folk singer during the 60s along with singers such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. Her fame was brief, but she is still well-remembered, and the closest thing the town has as a celebrity. It doesn’t take long, however, when she begins receiving threatening postcards and begins fearing for her life.

In the meantime, the high school class of 1970 is planning its high school reunion, and Spencer is a member of that class. The reunion begins stirring up all sorts of feelings about the Vietnam War. It doesn’t take too long before Arrowood’s deputy Joe LeDonne, a veteran of that war, begins seeing ties between the postcards and the Vietnam War. When Peggy’s dog is brutally killed, followed shortly by the murder of a young girl who has a disarming resemblance to Peggy Muryan, it’s all hands on deck to find out who wants to kill the singer.

Admittedly, this was a reread, but I hadn’t read it since it was first published in 1990. The book’s publishing date makes it feel like a period piece, though back when it was written there really were no such things as cell phones and fax machines. The tie to the Vietnam War was somewhat eerie to this reviewer, who grew up in the 70s.

McCrumb’s writing is beautiful, and though the Ballad series started becoming disappointing as the books continued, If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O is one of the best.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Unquiet Grave

The best thing about most of author Sharyn McCrumb’s books are the ghosts. They’re never scary or murderous. They’re not generally out to do anyone harm. The ghosts are just a part of Appalachian mythology. Like Cole in The Sixth Sense, Nora Bonesteel, featured in many of the books in McCrumb’s Ballad series, sees dead people. She has the sight.

Nora Bonesteel is not in McCrumb’s newest offering, The Unquiet Grave, but a ghost does play a key role. The book, unbelievably enough, is based on a true story in which an accused murderer is brought to trial based on evidence supplied by a ghost. The Greenbriar ghost, to be exact. The murder took place in West Virginia in 1897.

The reader first meets James P.D. Gardner, an African-American lawyer who has been confined to a segregated insane asylum since attempting suicide following the death of his wife. He begins to be treated by Dr. James Boozer, who is trying out the newfangled practice of treating mental illness by conversation rather than lobotomy or electric shock treatment. In the course of their conversation, which is woven in and out of the novel, we learn that Gardner was involved as an attorney in the Greenbriar murder case. The story is told through these conversations.

Back in 1897, beautiful and willful Zona Heaster marries Erasmus Trout Shue, a blacksmith who has been married twice before. His second wife died under mysterious circumstances. It isn’t long before Zona’s family starts to notice that things aren’t as they should be in the Shue marriage. Zona rarely sees her family, she is skin and bones, and she is isolated from the entire community. Within a short period of time, she dies from a fall down the steps. The fall is determined to be an accident.

Zona’s mother Mary Jane is suspicious from the get go. Though not a bit superstitious and deeply religious, she claims to see the ghost of her daughter, who tells her that she was murdered by her husband Trout Shue. Despite Mary Jane’s husband’s misgivings, Mary Jane pleas her case to the county prosecutor, who agrees to have the body exhumed. Upon examination, the doctor determines that Zona was indeed killed, likely by being strangled and then pushed down the stairs. Unlikely though it would seem, Mary Jane manages to convince him to bring the case to trial. Even more unlikely, Shue is found guilty.

All of the above characters are apparently real, and the case is genuine.

While The Unquiet Grave is nowhere near the best McCrumb novel, the story was fascinating nevertheless. The book is relatively short and the ending was extremely unexpected (and unable to be verified in any way as fact). It satisfied this reader. I also enjoyed learning the story through the conversations of a very interesting character, Mr. Gardner. It was a clever story-telling technique on McCrumb’s part.

The Unquiet Grave is not a scary ghost story. Instead, it’s more of a history lesson.  The Unquiet Grave is not part of McCrumb’s Ballad series, a series, by the way, I highly recommend.

Here is a link to the book.