Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
“The Unquiet Grave: A Novel”
Atria Books, 2017, pgs. 358
By Sharyn McCrumb
Sharyn McCrumb is perhaps best known for her “Ballad” novels—“The Ballad of Tom Dooley,” for example. In the series of books, McCrumb takes traditional Appalachian ballads and explores backstories behind the songs in novel form. They are fascinating and fabulous vehicles for making regional history come alive and giving context for cultural touchpoints.
Her latest offering, “The Unquiet Grave,” is a small divergence. Instead of a ballad, McCrumb has taken a true ghost story as her inspiration. “The Greenbrier Ghost” is one of West Virginia’s most well-known ghost stories. Like Wilmington’s very own ghost story of the “Maco Light,” The Greenbrier Ghost was a real person: Zona Shue, whose appearance from beyond the grave was entered into testimony in the trial for her murder. Does it sound incredible? Perhaps—which is why the story has continued to fascinate for more than 100 years. In McCrumb’s hands, the real people who inspired the events come to life. Thus a story that sounds beyond belief comes into sharp focus.
McCrumb likes to alternate voices and time periods in her work. It is one of the tools she uses to remind readers how the story changes upon who is telling it and when.
“The Unquiet Grave” unfolds in two time periods: the first is Greenbrier, WV, in the late 1890s. The second is in the 1930s at a segregated mental asylum in West Virginia, where we meet James P. D. Gardner, who served on the defense team during the Shue trial.
Zona Heaster met and married “Trout” Shue in a hasty manner. Let’s say she didn’t know him well enough beforehand. After the wedding, he became controlling and refused to let her family visit. Within months of the wedding, she was found dead, apparently from fainting and falling downstairs.
Trout controlled access to her body and had her buried quickly. Within weeks, the dead woman appeared to her mother and demonstrated she had been strangled and her neck was broken. Zona’s mother visited the county prosecutor and related her tale. The prosecutor ordered an autopsy. Her body was exhumed and a trial was put in motion, and eventually Shue was found guilty of murdering his wife. That’s apparently what most people remember and retell, with a strong emphasis on Zona appearing to her mother from beyond the grave to name her killer.
From her author’s note at the end of book:
“When I first requested information on the Greenbrier Ghost, I was referred to a book of regional folktales, in which Zona’s story took up all of a page and half. Two years later, with the help of a number of generous and scholarly people, I had amassed a pile of documents 6 inches thick: census records, birth and death certificates, property records, maps, photographs—a wealth of evidence to bring the folktale back into the real world.”
From her incredible research she reconstructs a story in a way that makes an episode of “Law and Order” look like child’s play. It’s an incredible story that spans the Civil War to the Depression. Race, class and gender are all factors McCrumb sheds light on with skill and subtlety—not shying away from them but showing them within context.
If anyone has read much of McCrumb’s work, one of her recurring themes is the complexity of the Civil War within mountain communities: one farm supporting the Union and their next door neighbor supporting the Confederacy. How did that play out for 40 years after the war? Another theme appears: neighbors supporting different sides of war and—for surprising reasons—live together in the same county, for the rest of their lives after the war’s end. How, for example, did a young African-American lawyer find himself as part of the legal team defending a capital crime, committed by a white man, in 1897 in West Virginia? How do remote hill farmers interact with more prosperous city dwellers? How did all these pieces impact the outcome of the trial and lives involved?
What I like so much about McCrumb’s writing is she doesn’t turn away from very human parts of the story; she embraces them. Humans are difficult and contradictory creatures, and she shows it across the board. Each character is very flawed but loving, alternately wonderful and disappointing. Part of human psychology is we like to put people into little boxes: “If you like this, that means you belong here, and you can’t like that.” It’s absurd because—though we might like to categorize people—the human experience is far more exciting and interesting. It is exactly our contradictions that make us interesting. One of McCrumb’s strengths as a writer is her ability to blend aspects of our experiences to make realistic characters and compelling storytelling. Like all her work, this one is a page-turner.