By Ian G. Wilson
Sharyn McCrumb says that the tale of the Greenbrier Ghost is the most famous ghost story in West Virginia. It is also a peculiarity in American legal history, as it was the first time a court verdict was reached based in part upon the testimony of a spirit. McCrumb’s latest novel, The Unquiet Grave, recreates the events that took place before, during, and after the trial. Though as historically accurate as possible and carefully researched, the book is nonetheless fictional as some of the conversations and exact actions of the people involved can only be guessed at from documents of the time. (In her afterward, McCrumb talks about the challenge of finding accurate factual information about the characters in the case.) Her research pays off in her vivid characterizations that make the local legend become real.
It would be wrong, however, to characterize The Unquiet Grave as a ghost story. In fact, the ghost never really puts in an appearance. But if you go beyond the concept of a supernatural piece, into the lives of the characters involved in the court case, then you get a detailed look at life, death, religion, politics, the effects of war, legal proceedings, and the uneasy relationship between races and classes.
The book is divided up into sections, going back and forth between 1897 (the year of the trial) and the reminiscences (in 1936) of an attorney associated with the case. Be warned that there is also some switching around between first and third person, which can get a little confusing until you’ve got the hang of who is the point of view character.
Zona Heaster is described by her mother as a wild girl. She has borne a child out of wedlock, which was secretly adopted out, and has a tendency to get involved with men who have looks but not many other desirable characteristics. Such a man is Edward “Trout” Shue, a newcomer to the county who works as a blacksmith. Zona’s mother takes an immediate dislike to Shue, but Zona is besotted, and marries him with what her parents think is unseemly haste. After the wedding, when Zona moves in with Trout, her mother becomes concerned when she doesn’t hear from her daughter for several months. When she does finally see her daughter, Zona looks pale and drawn and hints none too subtly that Shue is hurting her. Mrs. Heaster thinks:
“I went into the kitchen and brought out the basket of chicken and apple pie that I had made for Zona and Edward, though I now grudged him every mouthful. I hadn’t cared for him from the beginning, and I liked him even less after what I had just heard. A handsome brute is still a brute, and the handsome part tends to pass away a lot quicker than the brute does.”
Shortly after this meeting, Zona is found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home. Was it an accident, or did Trout have something to do with it?
Zona’s mother thinks he did and resolves to get to the bottom of the matter. Zona’s interment is arranged rapidly by her husband, who desperately tries to keep anyone from examining the body while the casket is open. Finally, after many sleepless nights, Mrs. Heaster announces that she has seen her daughter’s ghost, not once, but on four separate occasions. She gets a ride into Lewisburg, to visit the county prosecutor and convinces him, on the basis of her visions, that the body should be exhumed.
McCrumb excels at developing characters. Mrs. Heaster is one such well-drawn personage. Her hatred and vindictiveness towards the man she believes murdered her daughter, and her doggedness in pushing the inquiry, show a determined, single-minded, and not altogether attractive personality. She is, however, a hardworking woman who cares for her husband and sons, and her practicality and (mostly) sensible attitude go a long way toward making her more sympathetic. Her religious piety helps impress the county prosecutor, Mr. Preston.
But there are several other points of view in this story, all of them intriguing. Preston takes center stage for a few turns, and we learn about his background, his Civil War comrades, his status as a church elder, and his private life.
The man who I think is by far the most interesting person in the novel (and I think McCrumb must have been equally curious about him) is the African American attorney James Gardner, who, in 1936, finds himself after a suicide attempt in the state asylum for black people considered mentally ill. Gardner makes the acquaintance of a young, Harvard educated doctor, and, with some reluctance, talks about his role in the Greenbrier Ghost case. Gardner is a very conservative, proud man, who is a little hard to get close to, but as his story evolves, readers can see how he became the man he is:
Gardner considered. ‘Partly my training at Storer College and partly determination, of course. My father was a freedman, and he educated himself. Good at anything he turned his hand to. Raised horses, did some rudimentary doctoring. He taught me to read and to use books, and he encouraged me—pushed me, really—to become whatever I wanted to be. Not that I needed much pushing. I craved position—respect—like some fools crave opium.’
Though all of the people involved in the trial are white, Gardner is respected enough by his boss, Dr. Rucker, to handle some of the questioning of witnesses. As he goes through the process of gathering information for Trout’s defense, Gardner finds himself in the untenable position of having to protect the developmentally disabled young black man who actually found the body. If the defense were to suggest that the man might have had something to do with the death of a white woman, his life would be in danger, a weight Gardner can’t have on his conscience. Readers have the advantage of seeing Gardner as an old man, trapped in a place he doesn’t belong, yet maintaining his quiet dignity. But they will also see him as a young man starting out on his journey as a lawyer and the careful relationship he has with the attorney he is apprenticed to. Gardner is invaluable to Rucker, but he is also black, and he knows that puts limitations on how closely he can interact with his boss. They are colleagues, but not friends.
Those who enjoy a good historical novel with a tense courtroom drama will, I’m sure, enjoy McCrumb’s story as much as I did. I like ghosts, so I’ll admit I was a little sorry to not actually run across the Greenbrier Ghost, but McCrumb seems to have been more interested in the personalities surrounding the case, and I was happy to go along with her.
Sharyn McCrumb, born in 1948, is a well-known Virginia writer whose books are usually set in the Appalachians, and who often bases her novels on local legends or ballads. Her work includes The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1992) and The Rosewood Casket (1996).
The Unquiet Grave was published by Simon and Shuster in 2017 and is available at Greenville Public Library.