Reviewed by Kristin
Young and headstrong, Zona Heaster lived in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, round about 1896. West Virginia was still a young state, fresh from the Civil War, at least in the memories of its older population. Zona may have been young as well, but she was past twenty and ready to get married when the first opportunity presented itself. When charmer Edward Erasmus Shue, or “Trout,” came along, Zona jumped at the chance, no matter what reservations her mama may have had.
A few months later, Mrs. Zona Shue is dead from an apparent fall down the stairs.
Mary Jane Heaster, Zona’s mother, never did trust that Trout. When Zona had found out that he had two previous wives, it didn’t bother her none, but Mary Jane was afraid for her girl. When Zona is brought back to her hometown for burying, Trout acts the grieving husband and insists that no one look closely at the body. Soon after the funeral, Mary Jane has an unexpected visitor: Zona, telling her mother that her death was not natural.
Decades later, James P.D. Gardner recounts to his doctor what it was like to be an African-American attorney assisting in the defense of Edward Shue accused of murdering his young bride Zona. Mr. Gardner is going through a tough time himself, remanded to the segregated insane asylum after a suicide attempt, and his story is intertwined with that of the Heasters and the Shues.
Sharyn McCrumb paints a rich narrative in her usual way: the characters are strong, the settings are vivid, and she draws this novel from historical facts. Zona’s story is well known in the West Virginia hollows and ridges as the tale of “The Greenbrier Ghost.” Although long believed to be folklore, McCrumb followed the documents back into time, finding census records, death certificates, court records, maps and more to prove that there was a real Zona who died under suspicious circumstances. McCrumb can always be counted upon to portray her Appalachian characters realistically with authentic voices that may as well have come straight from 1896.
McCrumb may be best known for her Appalachian Ballad novels, but here she proves once again that she has an unerring sense for a good story, and the ability to tell it in a way that draws readers in, and keeps them wishing for more.