The Red Bird Sings by Aoife Fitzpatrick | Magazine | Crime | Historical Fiction | Interviews

By Aoife Fitzpatrick

Murder in the Mountain State

My debut novel, The Red Bird Sings, is set in rural West Virginia, and is based on the true story of an extraordinary murder trial. In 1897, when a man named Trout Shue was accused of murdering of his young wife, Zona Heaster Shue, an exceptional circumstance surrounded his indictment. Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, claimed that her daughter had returned from the afterlife to tell her that it was her husband who had killed her.

In writing a novel about this unique case, it might have been possible to take its most striking elements – the murder, the victim’s ghost, the trial – and transplant them to a location and time more familiar to me. But I was looking to discover the inevitability in this story; why did these remarkable things happen, to these specific people, in this community, at this very time? The answers have such deep roots in nineteenth-century West Virginia that it was clear the writer, and not the story, would have to shift in place and period. 

The outcome is a novel about domestic homicide, and three women whose suppressed rage leaves them haunted by the need for justice. The Red Bird Sings opens in June 1897, on a sultry day, the story unfolding across the breath-taking landscapes and neat towns of Greenbrier County. When I flew into Washington Dulles to research the locations in the book, my first destination was the nearby Skyline Drive, along the spine of the Blueridge Mountains. This is the eastern border of West Virginia, the lookouts along the road offering views across a frozen ocean of grey-blue stone. The mountains have the appearance of sharp, petrified waves, stretching, almost level, toward the distant horizon. The great chain of Appalachian Mountains once linked this ridge with the Sliabh Liag cliffs in Donegal. But I was southwest bound, heading down into the valley region where Zona Heaster had lived.

Route 64, gently winding and rolling, brought me into Greenbrier County, West Virginia, and the town of Lewisburg where Trout Shue was tried under the watchful eye of Mary Jane Heaster. The Greenbrier County Courthouse has changed little since then; built in 1827, from local red-brick, its cupola belfry is still intact, its great pediment supported by tall plastered pillars. From here, a few steps will bring you into the centre of Lewisburg, with its many well-preserved historic buildings. Not least of these is the beautiful North House Museum, built in the Federal style in 1820, with bricks fired in a kiln on the property. There is a vast gingko tree on the lawn that would have been little taller than Zona when she was alive. And, inside, the historians of the Greenbrier Historical Society bring the past so close you can almost hear the fiddle music and smell the lamp oil. In the archives, I held a woman’s homespun jacket that had been dyed for mourning more than 130 years ago, its incredible smallness and intense blackness putting me in mind of Mary Jane’s grief. And a distant in-law of the murder-accused explained to me, of a black-and-white photograph, That’s not Trout. His mother had the only picture of him that ever existed, and she kept it above her heart until the day she died.

With Toni Ogden, a museum curator, I visited the Barracks; one of the oldest and most charismatic buildings in Lewisburg, built from trees felled in 1799. An extensive collection of nineteenth-century farm tools and furniture had been temporarily housed here, and I was lucky enough to view and hold many of these handmade items. Gathered in one place, here was a visual biography of a family. From the bespoke corn-shucking gloves to the made-to-measure hay forks, from the small coopered items (tubs, firkins, cheese presses) to the homemade chairs and decorated leather trunks, it gave insight into Zona’s blue-collar, land-owning family – how their home would have been an expression of their extensive knowledge, skills, needs and preferences.

Not too far beyond Lewisburg, I came to the square-hewn log-cabin where Zona lost her life – viewing it from a polite distance, the house now being a private home. From here, I travelled towards the Heasters’ farm in Meadow Bluff, taking the same route that Trout would have used when carrying Zona’s remains back to her parent’s home one raw January day. The landscape is a mix of ferrous soil, cresting limestone, grass- and tree-covered hills. But at the time of Zona’s death, many of West Virginia’s hills – those with good access to river or railroad – would have been stripped bare by the intense, unregulated logging industry.  

In Meadow Bluff, little of the ground can be described as level, and farming this demanding land without machinery would have shaped the Heaster family’s life. It is also the place where the spark of spiritualism lit inside Mary Jane, and where her daughter’s ghost is alleged to have appeared. Towards Little Sewell Mountain, the white clapboard of Soule chapel comes into sight, a marker for the cemetery where Zona is buried. Even now, her grave is often decorated with flowers. I spent a long time by her side, wishing her peace, while imagining how this place of eternal rest had once been the focus of a great and troubling disturbance depicted in the novel.     

With its historic buildings and often-pristine landscape, West Virginia allows many direct glimpses into its past, while the archives at the North House Museum present a goldmine of local and specific history. I fell in love with Greenbrier County; the celadon rivers purling over limestone beds, the male northern cardinals approaching peak redness ahead of breeding season, the coal trains that are so long children sometimes learn to count at level crossings, numbering their cars. It is where spiritualism and the relentless progress of the Gilded Age collided in 1897, in a society where women had few rights and no platform for public speech. It is these simmering conditions that boiled over when Zona Heaster died. And the inevitable happened – haunted, a grieving mother set out in pursuit of justice.

(c) Aoife Fitzpatrick

About The Red Bird Sings:

West Virginia, 1897

After the sudden death of young Zona Shue only a few months after her impromptu wedding, her mother Mary Jane has a vision – she was killed. And by none other than her new husband, Trout, the handsome blacksmith beloved in their small Southern town.

Mary Jane, known for casting off her corsets, following famous spiritualists and for criticising Zona when she was alive, is devastated. Yet no-one believes her. Her only ally is the eccentric Lucy Frye – an unmarried maid who always suspected Trout’s power over her friend.

As the trial raises to fever pitch and the men of Greenbrier County stand aligned against them, Mary Jane and Lucy must decide whether to play with fire and reveal Zona’s greatest secret. But it’s Zona herself, from beyond the grave, who still has one last revelation to make.

Based on a real trial and masterfully playing with the tropes of the Southern Gothic, Aoife Fitzpatrick delivers a searing feminist history like no other. It is a first novel of rare and dazzling brilliance to be read with your heart in your mouth and chills down your spine to the final, haunting page.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Aoife Fitzpatrick is a native of Dublin, Ireland. Her debut novel, The Red Bird Sings, won the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize in 2020. The winner of the inaugural Books Ireland short-story competition, her work has also been recognised by the Séan O’Faoláin Prize, the Elizabeth Jolley Prize and by the Short Story of the Year award. Aoife received an MFA in Creative Writing at University College Dublin in 2019 and in 2020, she was the recipient of a literature bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland.

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