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: Prayers the Devil Answers

searchSharyn McCrumb has always been one of my favorite authors. Well, actually that’s not entirely accurate. She has a series featuring a forensic anthropologist named Elizabeth MacPherson that never grabbed me, though I read a couple of books in the series. But McCrumb’s ballad series books are pure poetry to my ears.

All of her books take place in the Appalachian Mountains, deep in the hollers of Tennessee. Prayers the Devil Answers is no exception. While not part of her Ballad Series, I was excited because it purportedly had the mystical element I like so much in her ballad books. The ghosts and folklore and old wives tales told from generation to generation. Banjos strumming. You know.

Prayers the Devil Answers has a good, solid, interesting storyline. It is 1934 and in an effort to survive the hard times,  Ellendor and her husband, along with their two small boys, move from the country, where they live with relatives, into town where there are still jobs to be had. Her husband not only becomes employed, but soon is elected sheriff. Unfortunately, he unexpectedly dies of pneumonia, leaving Ellie with no way to care for her sons. Ellie manages to talk the town fathers into letting her finish off her husband’s term, thereby providing her with income.

And while she – and those who hired her – assumed her job would be nothing more than paperwork, a murder takes place in her county. The man is convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Unfortunately for Ellie, the law requires that it is the sheriff who must do the actual hanging. Is this something that Ellie will be able to handle?

Prayers the Devil Answers is a story of the strength of family, the tenacity of women who must provide, and the sorrow that can creep into your life when you least expect it.

Overall, I liked the book. McCrumb is a phenomenal writer. But there was something about this story that I found odd and frankly off putting. The prologue tells a detailed story about a group of mountain girls who, a few years prior to when this story takes place, conduct what’s called a Dumb Supper. According to Wikipedia, in the mountain culture of Appalachia, Dumb Suppers are secret suppers held at midnight in which the dead may come back and talk to their loved ones. In this story, however, the Dumb Supper is held to determine who among the young girls in attendance will marry. Something unexpected transpires at the Dumb Supper that causes much dismay.

And then the book begins, and for all intents and purposes, the Dumb Supper is forgotten, except for a very brief side note later in the book that has almost nothing really to do with the story. It was like the author just wanted to get this old piece of folklore into the book. It made no sense to me and seemed just odd.

Odd enough, in fact, that it contributes to my not being able to highly recommend this book. Read Sharyn McCrumb, but choose one of the novels with Nora Bonesteel as part of the story. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter would be a good place to start.

Here is a link to the book.