Book Review: The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb

Book Review: The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb

Title: The Unquiet Grave
Author: Sharyn McCrumb
Publisher: Atria Books
Hardcover: 368 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

The Greenbrier Ghost is renowned in American folklore, but Sharyn McCrumb is the first author to look beneath the legend to unearth the facts. Using a century of genealogical material and other historical documents, McCrumb reveals new information about the story and brings to life the personalities in the trial: the prosecutor, a former Confederate cavalryman; the defense attorney, a pro-Union bridgeburner, who nevertheless had owned slaves; and the mother of the murdered woman, who doggedly sticks to her ghost story—all seen through the eyes of a young black lawyer on the cusp of a new century, with his own tragedies yet to come.

With its unique blend of masterful research and mesmerizing folklore, illuminating the story’s fascinating and complex characters, The Unquiet Grave confirms Sharyn McCrumb’s place among the finest Southern writers at work today.

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*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

Considering it’s supposed to be somewhat of a ghost story, this book was a lot different than what I’d originally thought it was going to be like. I thought it’d be more folklore and superstition based rather than what is essentially a look at a particular place in a particular period of history, that all happens to connect to this original ghost story. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it (rather the opposite in fact), but it’s less plot and character driven than setting driven, which lends itself well to a historical semi-fiction.

I hate calling this straight-out historical fiction, because McCrumb clearly did a lot of research before writing this novel. It follows the story of a family who lives in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, just post-civil war, and how their unlucky daughter was allegedly killed. The only made-up parts that I could tell were of the actual motivations of the characters and conversations, but as for plot points in general, it almost exactly follows the recorded history of what happened. The story is told through two different perspectives; at one point, it’s told by a black lawyer who’s been locked up in an asylum due to attempted suicide. He was on the defense of the husband of the woman who died, and he reflects to a doctor on what happened in that case. One the other side is Mary Jane Heaster, the mother of the woman who died. The two stories are beautifully interwoven to create a thorough look at the struggles of the area in that particular time period.

It took some time to get used to the style of narration, but I was okay after a couple of chapters, and the story overall is fascinating. I feel like I have more of a grasp of the importance of the Civil War, especially for West Virginia, and how that affected people living there at the time. The characters were complex and interesting enough to compel me to move forward in the story, though when a story follows real people who have lived, I always get a little sidetracked by thinking about what their real motivations might have been, and whether it seems plausible. I do, however, think that McCrumb does an excellent job in fleshing out characters that seem real and complex. The mystery itself I found underwhelming, which is why this book lost a star, but the way McCrumb delves into the setting and explores the time period makes up for the lost interest, and certainly sparked my intrigue and made me want to learn more about it. So, definitely read this if you’re interested in the historical side of things, but if you’re looking for a ghost story, this is not the book for you at all.

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