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.

Friday Book Whimsy: Don’t Know Much About History

My blog audience knows by now that I love mysteries. At the end of the year, if I look at the list of books I have read, more than half are probably mysteries. And the ones that aren’t often will have a mystery element to them. Like who is the crazy woman in the attic in Jane Eyre?

But the other genre of books that I love is historical fiction. I love to learn about history via a fictional story. I wish, for example, that I had read the whole series of Henry VIII books by Philippa Gregory prior to our visit to England in 1993. That trip took place more than 20 years after I studied World History, and I thought “Henry VIII” was a song by Herman and the Hermits.

I have given some thought to the best historical novels I have read in the past couple of years, and I’m not ready to commit that the following are the five best historical novels I’ve ever read. But they are five really good novels from which I learned a lot about an historical event.

So, in no order…..

other bolelyn (2)Moloka’i by Alan Brennert is the story of a young Hawaiian girl who contracts leprosy and is sent to a leper colony on the island of Moloka’i. I know the plot sounds depressing, but it simply wasn’t. It was a heartwarming story about love. I learned that the island of Moloka’i actually did have a leper colony located on it, and it was where Father (Saint) Damian worked with lepers for years in the 1800s before he, himself, died of leprosy. It was wonderful to learn about this amazing man, though he certainly wasn’t the focus of the story but only a bit player. Moloka’i is one of my favorite books of all time.

other bolelyn (1)The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory was the first book I ever read by this author. The book was riveting, and got me hooked on reading all of the books about Henry’s bevy of wives and mistresses. The Other Boleyn Girl tells the story of Anne, Mary, and George Boleyn and their strange relationship through the eyes of Mary, who was Henry’s first Boleyn love and led to the infamous and unfortunate relationship with her sister Anne. Seemingly decently researched and definitely well-written.

orphan trainOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is an excellent story about an event in history I knew absolutely nothing about. Apparently in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, orphans from the East Coast were sent by train to the Midwest where they would be adopted by families to work on the farms or in the businesses. Orphan Train is the story of one of these orphans, now an elderly woman, who befriends a young orphan girl, tied by their backgrounds. Good writing, but mostly just an interesting story.

true sistersTrue Sisters by Sandra Dallas, is the story of four Morman women who move from their homes in Iowa City (one coming from as far away as England) across the plains and over the Rocky Mountains to Salt Lake City, on foot, pushing handcarts carrying all of their worldly goods. You can only imagine the obstacles they faced. Again, while I knew that Mormans moved from Iowa and Illinois to Salt Lake City, this particular mode of transportation was new to me. A beautiful story of friendship by one of my favorite authors (and not just because she lives in Denver!).

aviatorThe Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin is the story of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of Charles Lindbergh. Though the story is about Anne, the reader learns a lot about aviation and about the famous Charles Lindbergh (who, in my mind, was half cray-cray). The story of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby is particularly well-told and interesting.

Oh, what the heck, for good measure…..

inventionThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is the story of Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina, feminists before anyone even remotely conceived of the word. But it is also the story of slavery as told in a secondary storyline about a fictional slave girl. The writing is beautiful and the story was amazing – both glorious and horrifying. A wonderful read.

And there you have it folks, six historical novels that should be on your bookshelf or in your electronic reader.