Book Review: The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb

It was already plain to me that Mr. Shue was the spitting image of trouble, and that my girl would likely come to regret becoming wife number three.

Expertly researched and richly crafted, The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb imagines the story behind The Greenbriar Ghost—one of the American South’s most chilling and perplexing murder trials.

Captivated by the handsome charm of Mr. Edward “Trout” Shue, Zona Heaster is quick to fall in love and hasty to marry. Her mother is suspicious of her daughter’s new husband, as any small town woman would be of a man new to town with no known local history. To make matters worse Mr. Shue’s unusual behavior at the wedding sends up red-flags of a different kind. As smitten newlyweds, Zona and Trout set off to start their life nearer to where he works as a blacksmith, practically forbidding Zona’s family from visiting.

When word reaches Mrs. Heaster that her daughter has taken ill, she doesn’t hesitate to set out for a visit with little notice. Upon seeing Zona, Mrs. Heaster’s suspicions are reignited: her daughter is pale and frail—a stark contrast from the bold, love-struck girl that left just weeks before. With little choice in the matter, Mrs. Heaster returns home all the while fretting over Zona’s well-being and with good reason.

“Mrs. Shue is dead, sir. She was found at the foot of the stairs this afternoon. We reckon she must have fallen.” I turned away then, because they were probably expecting tears, but they wouldn’t see any from me. All I felt was a cold rage somewhere beneath my ribs. Jacob put his had on my shoulder, but I jerked away. “The devil had killed her!” I didn’t mean for them to hear me say that but they did.

The suddenness of Zona’s passing and the peculiar behavior of Mr. Shue at the funeral lead Mrs. Heaster to believe her death was no accident. Full of spite and vengeance she vows to unearth the truth behind Zona’s death and her husband’s role in it. She prays a fervent prayer for a sign to lead her to the truth and her request is quickly answered in the form of her daughter’s ghost. Armed with this sighting and the evidence presented by the deceased, Mrs. Heaster enlists the help of her brother-in-law to secure a lawyer in the case of Zona’s murder.

Over thirty years later, we become acquainted with Mr. James Gardner, a Black man currently residing in an asylum following a botched suicide attempt. As part of his therapy he begins to tell the story of his life as a lawyer—where he got his start as an assistant to a prominent, though reckless, white attorney during none other than the very trail of Mr. Edward Shue in the murder of his wife. Through his speech we experience the court proceedings and the detail that cements this haunting story into historical account: the testimony provided by Zona Shue’s ghost.

Despite the heat of the day James Gardner felt a stab of cold beneath his ribs. “But, Dr. Rucker, suppose the jury believes is.” Rucked gave him a pitying smile. “Give them some credit, James. The jurors may be indifferently educated fellows, but they’re not fools. They won’t fall for superstitious nonsense…”

McCrumb has rendered a gripping retelling of the events surrounding the death of a young bride during the end of the 19th century and the eerie circumstances that lead to the allegations posed against her husband. The Unquiet Grave is a well-crafted period ghost story that speculates on the power of superstition and belief.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Atria Books and Netgalley

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