McCrumb’s (Prayers the Devil Answers, 2016, etc.) latest combines an Appalachian ghost story with a turn-of-the-last-century murder case.
This tale takes a while to develop, as it progresses at the ambling pace of a one-horse buggy over muddy roads. The setting veers back and forth between rural Greenbrier County in 1890s West Virginia and a segregated asylum “for the Colored Insane” in 1930. In Greenbrier, Mrs. Heaster, a farm wife, worries about her only daughter, the beautiful and impractical Zona, who, at 20, has endangered her marriageability with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. However, after Zona’s child is adopted out, she meets handsome blacksmith “Trout” Shue. The infatuation is immediate and mutual, and the couple rushes to marry. Zona ignores her mother’s cautions about hasty marriage, particularly to someone whose last wife (Shue’s second) died of a fall less than a year before. At the wedding reception, Shue’s remark about Zona’s weight immediately alerts Mrs. Heaster that her daughter has just married what we would today term a potentially abusive control freak. Sure enough, within a few months, Zona is dead—from a tumble down the stairs, according to her husband—and Shue refuses to let anyone else near her body until it is safely interred. Mrs. Heaster’s suspicions that the death was no accident are confirmed after visits from Zona’s ghost lead her to demand an exhumation and autopsy. In 1930, James Gardner, an elderly retired attorney committed to the Lakin hospital following a suicide attempt, recalls the days when, while apprenticed to the colorful barrister William Rucker, he was second chair in the defense of Shue at his murder trial. Despite the intriguing questions touching on Gardner’s struggles as a black lawyer in the South, the asylum sections, consisting of many courtly dialogues with a sympathetic doctor, are unavoidably dull, since they distract from the far more suspenseful experiences of Mrs. Heaster as she pulls out all the stops to get justice for her daughter in a system controlled by men.