The Unquiet Grave: A Novel

The Unquiet Grave: A Novel

by Sharyn McCrumb


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From the New York Times bestselling author of Prayers the Devil Answers and The Ballad of Tom Dooley, a “fascinating historical fiction novel you won’t be able to put down” (Bustle) based on one of the strangest murder trials in American history—the case of the Greenbrier Ghost.

Lakin, West Virginia, 1930: Following a suicide attempt and consigned to a segregated insane asylum, attorney James P.D. Gardner finds himself under the care of Dr. James Boozer. Testing a new talking cure for insanity, Boozer encourages his elderly patient to share his experiences as the first black attorney to practice law in 19th-century West Virginia. His memorable case: defending a white man on trial for the murder of his young bride—a case that the prosecution based on the testimony of a ghost.

Greenbrier, West Virginia, 1897: Beautiful, willful Zona Heaster has always lived in the mountains. Despite her mother’s misgivings, Zona marries the handsome Erasmus Trout Shue, Greenbrier’s newest resident and blacksmith. Her mother learns of her daughter’s death weeks later. A month after the funeral, Zona’s mother makes a chilling claim to the county prosecutor: her daughter was murdered, and she was told this by none other than Zona’s ghost...

With her unique and “real knack for crafting full-bodied characters and using folklore to construct compelling plots” (Booklist), Sharyn McCrumb effortlessly demonstrates her place among the finest Southern writers at work today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476772882
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 143,195
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sharyn McCrumb is the New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Ballad novels. She has received numerous honors for her work, including the Mary Frances Hobson Prize for Southern Literature, the AWA Book of the Year, and Notable Books in both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. She was also named a Virginia Woman of History for Achievement in Literature. She lives and writes in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, fewer than one hundred miles from where her family settled in 1790.

Read an Excerpt

The Unquiet Grave



    THE PLACE WAS AS QUIET as it ever got in the hours around midnight, with only occasional screams or sobs from the cells down the corridor to disturb his contemplation. Somewhere, perhaps on another floor of the building, someone was singing.

    He was standing at the window, as he always did at that time of night, hands resting on the bars, his face pressed against the wire-reinforced glass, as if the cool night air could waft him away. Perhaps no one cared if he stood at the window after lights-out; there were a hundred patients and perhaps a dozen staff members who were busy enough without having to worry about a quiet man having a sleepless night. Anyhow, even if they did care, chances were that they wouldn’t see him. His dark face would not glow in the moonlight and give him away.

    He strained his eyes, searching the darkness beyond the treetops, hoping that the clouds would part enough to let him see the shapes of the dark cliffs across the river. That was Ohio, over there. In his parents’ day, back when this place was still part of Virginia, that side of the river would have meant freedom, but that had changed now. Now freedom—or the lack of it—was the same everywhere for ordinary people. And for madmen and criminals, there was no freedom at all. Since he had spent most of his life subscribing to, and even enforcing, that rule, it seemed churlish to object to it now, just because its strictures now applied to him. Those who are a danger to themselves or others must be restrained.

    He could never see the river itself—it was nearly a mile away, beyond the fields on the other side of the road. Except in the dead of winter, the trees blocked the view, and then the steep embankment obscured the water. At least he knew it was there, though: the broad, dark waters of the Ohio rolling on to the Mississippi and on to its freedom in the Gulf. He would like to have seen that confluence, followed it even, all the way to journey’s end. The puny little rivers where he came from, in the eastern part of West Virginia, weren’t a patch on this one; why, except in the spring floods, you could wade across most of them. What was the point of being here—so close—and not getting to see the river? What was the point of being here anyhow? It wasn’t as if they could help him. If he had been delusional, perhaps they could have led him back to reason, but he always thought that his problem was seeing the world too clearly.

    From somewhere down the hall a long scream pierced the stillness. One of the old men was either hallucinating horrors or remembering real parts of his past, perhaps as far back as slavery—it was hard to tell which was worse, because those who imagined them believed with equal fervor. At least he was spared all of that. He spent a long time at night with his face pressed close to the window, and when he finally fell into bed, he did not dream.

    He wished he could either become entirely sane or else very much more mad. A delusion that transported you right away from unpleasant realities would be more blessing than affliction, it seemed to him. Let him drift away on a current of madness into a dreamworld where he was young again, where his gentle Eliza or her successor, clever Alice, was still alive and well—or, better yet, some kingdom out of a fairy story, in which the world was entirely different from anything he’d ever known. Let there be talking horses, and penny candy stick trees, and golden rivers of bourbon. He sighed. None of those fantasies particularly appealed to him any more than the real world did just now. He had spent his life in the profession of law—not a discipline that encouraged its practitioners to be fanciful. He had always considered an excess of dignity and a dearth of imagination to be positive qualities in his character, but unless madness conferred its own artistic inspiration, his temperament made him ill-equipped to enjoy the benefits of delusion, and his lifelong habit of reserve would have held him back anyway. He was forever an observer, and one day he had decided that he had seen enough and wanted to leave. Yet here he was.

    His own particular form of insanity was to see the world exactly as it was, and to despair in silence.

    As he grew older, the truth, unvarnished by hope or illusion, made him desperate to escape life itself. But suicide was considered madness, rather than a shrewd appraisal of one’s options, and so here he was in this barred asylum, as desolate and bereft of choices as Shakespeare’s Ophelia, but prevented, both literally and metaphorically, from reaching the river.

    Odd that, while he could never see the river, there were other things that he did see sometimes in the night. A thing with glowing red eyes and leathery wings . . . Other patients had spoken of it, too, but while they had wild imaginations, unmoored from logic, he did not. Precisely because he saw things exactly as they were, he knew that whatever-it-was was real.

    Best not to speak of that, though. He couldn’t be bothered to try to convince the long-suffering staff of the asylum that this one particular delusion was not one at all. It didn’t matter really. The thing was doing no harm, except perhaps to make people who reported it seem madder than they actually were.

    It hadn’t taken him long to figure out that these people could not help him, even if they wanted to, and that the best course would be to learn the rules of the game that would set him free as quickly as possible. He had been learning the rules and playing the game all his life, so this was just one more battle of wits, not much different from the others. There were no white people here, but the game was pretty much the same: those in charge versus those who had no power at all.

    “You’re up late tonight, James.”

    He stiffened, nettled by the condescending tone, the use of his Christian name. He turned toward the doorway, where a shadow was silhouetted by the light in the corridor. “With all due respect, sir, despite my present circumstances, I am not your inferior, and from the sound of your voice, I do not think myself junior to you in age, either. I am certainly not a child. Please address me as Mr. Gardner.”

    There was a brief silence, while the shadow seemed to consider the matter. “Need we be so formal? After all, you are a patient here. And I am an attending physician.”

    “If we were on my home ground—in a courtroom—instead of in a hospital, would you willingly allow me to call you by your given name while you addressed me as ‘Mister’?”

    “Perhaps not. We doctors like to stand on ceremony.”

    “Have we met? Your voice is unfamiliar to me.”

    “In passing. I have not treated you, but my room is just down the hall here, and I thought since we were neighbors I’d pay a call on you. I couldn’t sleep, either.”

    The prisoner considered it. “So you are our hall monitor. I remember you. You may come in if you like.”

    “Thank you. Another time, perhaps. I didn’t bring the keys.”

    “How odd that they house you doctors here among your patients. No one quarters lawyers next door to the criminals in the jail.”

    The visitor chuckled. “I suppose not, but there weren’t many alternatives in this case. Point Pleasant is six miles down the road, and its population is mostly white, so it was deemed both inconvenient and awkward for us to try to live there. We’re understaffed here, too, so it’s helpful to have us in residence in case we’re needed beyond our regular working hours. I don’t mind. It saves me rent money.”

    “Your voice makes me think you’re mighty young, Doctor, and that last remark of yours clinched it. What’s your name again?”

    There was a slight pause before the reply. “My name is Boozer. Dr. Boozer, that is.”

    He laughed. “Boozer? That name must have been a cross to bear at times.”

    “I got used to it. By the time I was ten, I’d heard every schoolyard jest that can be made about it, but after people become acquainted with me they stop noticing. And my parents tried to temper its effects by giving me an ordinary first name—James. Like yours.”

    “Boozer.” Gardner considered it. “No doubt people think the name means you are descended from drunkards. I don’t suppose it does, though.”

    “Well, not in our case. I can’t speak for the original owners. I’m sure our surname was a leftover from the white folks back where my parents came from, because its origin is Scottish, and we most definitely are not. I looked it up one time in the library when I was in Pennsylvania. It’s a variation of Bousay, but God only knows what that means.”

    “You must spend a lot of time explaining that.”

    “It’s best to get it out of the way quickly, I’ve found. Anyhow, the staff says that you are an educated fellow yourself, Mr. Gardner, and your conversation certainly bears that out. When you called the courtroom your home ground, did you mean that you were a lawyer?”

    “I am a lawyer, young man. I still am one. And when I get shed of this place, I shall resume my practice immediately back in Mercer County, so don’t go thinking of me as a permanent fixture around here.”

    “I wish you well, Ja— Mr. Gardner. And we’ll do our best to send you on your way. God knows we need the space. They called lights-out a long while back, yet here you are, gazing out the window. Are you having trouble sleeping?”

    “I savor the silence in the dead of night. If I had to exist only in the cacophony of daytime here, I would indeed go mad.”

    “I know. It helps to think of them as injured. They don’t have any visible wounds to prove that, but I’m certain they suffer just as much.”

    “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?” The mockery in Gardner’s voice was unmistakable.

    “We do what we can. Some people are easier to reach than others. I’d like to help you, if you’d ever like to talk about things.”

    “Perhaps one day, young man. But you haven’t lived long enough yet to have had much experience of the world. I warn you that the things I say, which to you will seem the sheerest lunacy, will be the plain unvarnished truth.”

    “Are you standing at that window watching for the red-eyed demon some of the patients claim is out there?”

    Gardner laughed. “Perhaps I am, Doctor. And perhaps I cannot tell a hawk from a handsaw. But I’ll tell you one thing I did not ever see—the ghost of Zona Heaster Shue.”

    “Who is that?”

    “A white lady—just a country girl who died a long time back. I never met her, but she lost a case for me in court. She testified for the prosecution.”

    “Before she died, you mean?”

    Mr. Gardner laughed. “No, after!”

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    The Unquiet Grave 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
    357800 More than 1 year ago
    I love historical fiction....especially when there's a bit of a ghost story to compliment it...and this is a good one. Based on the true story of one of the strangest murder trials in American history....Sharyn McCrumb tells the tale of an 1897 legend....the Greenbrier Ghost. It's 1930 when while incarcerated in West Virginia's asylum for the colored insane that 63 year old country lawyer James P. D. Gardner recounts his connection to an old murder case defending a white man. In addition to learning about the sudden and mysterious death of a young newlywed....and her mother's vow to seek justice, we also visit the Civil War to learn about the evil exploits of his Attorney/Doctor mentor who actually defended the perpetrator of the crime....and find out about Gardner's own troubles. Informative and engrossing all the way to the big reveal! (Smile) (Am glad I didn't read the book summary on this one.)
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I love how Sharyn McCrumb researches her books. Her descriptions are so concise it's like watching a movie. This is a terrific book.
    Storytellermary More than 1 year ago
    The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb Justice, her mother was simply looking for justice for her daughter Zona, who may have been a bit vain and foolish, but did not deserve her sad fate. I admired her determination in riding or walking miles in the cold, trying first to help her ailing Zona and then to bring her murderer to justice, doing what she needed to do. “Talking to a small town lawyer isn’t very daunting when you have been speaking with the dead.” A friend sent a link to the beautiful, sad ballad, and between that and reading, I found myself transported to the mountains, the isolation and harshness and the beauty of those mountains. The ending brought memories of visiting the prison in Moundsville as well and seeing murals painted by men locked away from their beloved mountains and rivers. I admire the thorough research that made the story ring true, and the writing talent that kept the story flowing along two time lines, the 1897 trial and the recollection of it within an asylum in 1930-31. This is a compelling book, worth setting aside worldly tasks and electronic entertainments to be immersed in a different time and place. I was charmed by the little detail of a baby entertained by a feather stuck to a bit of honey on his hands; my grandma had told me of this way of keeping a baby busy. Some bits of wisdom: Sanity seems to be mostly a consensus of opinion . . . There’s little enough time for a woman to be young in this world. . . . lawyerlike, he thought of marriage as more of a contract . . . for their mutual benefit . . for the good of the community and the benefit of the family. . . . a placid existence could be considered an achievement in this uncertain world . . . “Life is mostly contrary to expectations . . .”
    Delphimo More than 1 year ago
    Sharyn McCrumb weaves a poignant story of a mother’s grief and revenge. The story drawing on the true story of the case of the Greenbrier Ghost alternates between 1897 and 1930. The two events do not combine until midway through the story, when the lawyer talks about the trial. As usual, McCrumb utilizes the setting and characters in this chilling tale of a young bride falling to her death and her mother’s determination to show her daughter was murdered. The struggles and heartaches of the Heaster family emphasize the bleakness of life in the mountains of West Virginia, where happiness and joy sparsely filter through the clouds. McCrumb maintains the mood of suspense and foreboding throughout the tale, with the reader wondering what will happen next. The Unquiet Grave provides an interesting story.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Usually I love Sharyn McCrumb. This book is buried under a mountain of historical detail. While interesting, this does nothing to advance the plot or deepen our understanding of the characters who,for the most part, seem to be there solely for the purpose of exposition. A passionless and dull read.
    Xkoqueen More than 1 year ago
    I was transported to the old South... The Unquiet Grave is a very enjoyable novel in which author Sharyn McCrumb marvelously brings the “old South” to life. The novel is two stories really, one detailing the murder of Zona Shue from the perspective of Zona’s mother, Mary Jane, and the other revealing the golden years of Defense Attorney James PD Gardner who share’s his past and life perspective with the young doctor determining his fitness for release from suicide watch in a mental institution. The beauty of the dual narration is that we see rural southern life from two different perspectives of race and social standing within Greenbrier County West Virginia. Mary Jane is a proud white farmer scraping to make ends meet while seeking justice for the murder of her daughter. Author McCrumb brings her beautifully to life with elegant idioms that are true to both the era and the region. Mr. Gardner is an equally proud black attorney fighting to climb the economic ladder as a professional while overcoming the odds of someone of color attaining success in that era. McCrumb’s character development of Gardner is cleverly achieved through Gardner’s own storytelling of his past. Mary Jane is a witness for the prosecution of Zona’s accused murderer, and Gardner is the defense attorney. Plot development of the murder trial seems effortless as we alternate between Mary Jane’s present and Gardner’s retelling of the past. Throw in the fact that the prosecution’s case might need to rely on Mary Jane’s testimony based on an encounter with Zona’s ghost, and we have ample opportunity surprise as we await the trial’s resolution. An excellent read, author McCrumb had me wondering about the history of Greenbrier resort the entire time. 4.5 stars
    IrregularReader More than 1 year ago
    In 1930, successful attorney James P.D. Gardner is an inmate of a segregated West Virginia mental asylum following a suicide attempt. In 1897, the beautiful, reckless, and headstrong Zona Heaster defies her family and marries Edward “Trout” Shue after a whirlwind courtship. Within months, Zona is dead, and her mother, Mary Jane, a stoic West Virginia farmer’s wife, is left bereft, certain that Zona’s new husband is responsible for her death. When Zona’s ghost begins to appear to Mary Jane, dropping hints about the circumstances around her death, Mary Jane sets out to see justice done for her daughter. As the two narratives weave in and out, the story of Zona Heaster, The Greenbriar Ghost, is slowly brought into the light. I’ve read several of Sharyn McCrumb’s novels and have always been impressed. McCrumb is able to take local West Virginia legends and folklore and create spellbinding mysteries. The Unquiet Grave did not disappoint. McCrumb weaves a story together from two view points: Zona’s (white) mother in 1987, and James Gardner, a (black) attorney in 1930. The story incorporates the roles of race, respectability, and class during America’s Guilded Age. As usual, McCrumb vividly brings her story to life. You can almost feel the biting winds of the West Virginia Mountain winter. Her characters seem to jump off the page as fully realized people. The story is based upon “The Greenbriar Ghost” legend from the West Virginia hills, but is also painstakingly researched; every character in this book is based upon a real, historical person. This blending of history and legend is what makes McCrumb such a unique writer. In The Unquiet Grave, the supernatural and the factual twine around one another, each a part of a seamless whole. Fans of historical mysteries should definitely be adding McCrumb’s books to their to-read pile. The Unquiet Grave is a fine example of the genre, and should appeal to most readers. An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
    Mirella More than 1 year ago
    Sharyn McCrumb returns with a haunting tale based upon actual true life events. It is about the murder of a young wife and the subsequent trial of the accused, her husband. What makes the tale fascinating is the convicting testimony came from the victim's mother who gave evidence that her daughter's ghost led her to discover the death was actually a murder. This resulted in the exhumation of the corpse and the subsequent charges and trial. Set in the late 1800's, the novel explores the victim, accused, and family. In addition, time is spent on the backgrounds of the prosecutor and defence lawyers. Known as the case of the Greenbriar Ghost, the author has researched the case in great detail, drawing on photos, maps, and legal certificates of those involved. Another historical fact is that the defence lawyer was the first black attorney in Virginia. The first half of the book is fast paced and gripping. A bit of momentum is lost in the second half as the conversation between the defence lawyer and his psychiatric doctor in the mental institution revealing details of the case dragged a bit. Nevertheless, the story and characters kept me enthralled to the end. A nice mix of mystery and folk tale! Definitely recommended.
    amybooksy More than 1 year ago
    The Unquiet Grave is about the Greenbrier Ghost legend in West Virginia. The story tells about a ghost of a young woman, Zona Heaster Shue, who visits her mother and tells her how she had died. Mary Jane is determined to prove that Zona was murdered. She goes to town to tell the prosecutor that Zona ghost appear to her and knows she was murdered. Zona's body is then exhumed and everyone was shocked to find that Mary Jane was right! The Unquiet Grave is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I have never heard of the Greenbrier Ghost before but I want to know more about it. I enjoyed how Sharyn McCrumb's vivid storytelling brings this legend to life. My heart aches for Mary Jane when her precious Zona died and was fascinated how she found the strength to go to the authorities to tell them about how Zona appeared to her. Which brought on a fascinating trial. How many trials in history that were brought on by ghost? I was completely caught off guard at the ending of the book and was especially interested by the Authors Notes.  Great read! 100 stars.  Even though I received this book from the publisher, I was not required to write a review. This review is 100% my own opinion.
    SheTreadsSoftly More than 1 year ago
    The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb is a highly recommended historical fiction novel set in nineteenth-century West Virginia. The novel is based on the true story of the Greenbrier Ghost. In 1930 after a failed suicide attempt, attorney James P. D. Gardner is in a segregated insane asylum located in Lakin, West Virginia. He begins a conversation with Dr. James Boozer, a young doctor who wants to try the new cure for insanity which involves talking to his patients. Dr. Boozer encourages his elderly patient to talk about his experiences as the first black attorney when he started practicing. Gardner discusses his most memorable case, a case based on the testimony of a ghost, the infamous Greenbrier Ghost. In 1897 Erasmus Trout Shue, a white man who was a blacksmith, was on trial in Greenbrier, West Virginia, for killing his bride, Zona Heaster. After they were married and Zona's mother, Mary Jane Heaster hadn't heard anything from her daughter, she finds out Zona has died. Mary Jane is sure her new husband had a hand in Zona's death and prays for a sign, which she receives. Then she tells the county prosecutor that Zona’s ghost has appeared to her several times, saying that she had been murdered. An exhumation and autopsy, ordered by the prosecutor, confirms her claim. At that time, Gardner was apprenticed to barrister William Rucker and acted as second chair in the defense of Shue at his murder trial. The premise of The Unquiet Grave is intriguing and clearly there was a lot of research that went into incorporating the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost in the story. The quality of the writing is excellent and the characters are well developed. What made the narrative suffer was the interview sections between the doctor and Gardiner in the 1930s, which, while they clearly perform a purpose in the novel, they also slow it down and become, well, a bit boring, especially in comparison to Mrs. Heaster's story. I found myself pushing my way through those chapters to get to the other chapters, which I found more interesting. It should also be noted that the humor McCrumb has in her other books is absent here. The novel does have some interesting historical insights into Gardner's struggles as a black lawyer in the south and his experience in a segregated asylum in the 1930's. Also Mrs. Heaster's fight for justice for Zona is truly a fight against a justice system controlled by men. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books