Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Buried Truths: The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

Wife of Ransloe Boone

Entered into Rest

November 15, 1852
Aged 22 Years
Beloved Wife and Mother

It was all ordinary information, nothing Verity had not known. Except that the marker stood beside an iron cage that completely enclosed the grave, and the grave was outside the cemetery. A hinged door at the far end of the cage was padlocked shut.

"Why?" Verity's voice was raw and hoarse. "Why is my mother's grave inside a cage?"

Impetuously, seventeen-year-old Verity Boone has accepted an offer of marriage from Nathaniel McClure, a landed young farmer whose courtship letters and gifts of poetry had convinced her to travel from Worcester, where she had lived with her aunt since her mother's death fifteen years earlier, to the small town of Catawissa, Pennsylvania, where the father she has not seen in years lives alone. Nate  is mannerly, but awkward and reserved, and the easy exchange of thoughts that flowed in their letters seems missing. Still, he  is handsome and seems to be earnestly trying to please when she suggests that they take a walk toward the small church near her father's farmhouse. What she sees there shakes her deeply.

Her mother and aunt are buried in caged graves outside the graveyard walls, in unhallowed ground. As if they were what?....Witches?" she wonders. Verity realizes with dread that there are many more secrets buried in that small community than she could have imagined, secrets that she must understand before she can remain in that place and happily make a marriage with Nate.

Her father is distant and will tell her little about her mother's death, and although her intended mother-in-law and her daughters seem welcoming and affectionate, they only hint that secrets are better left buried. But in her father's house, Verity uncovers her mother's journals which hint at mysterious deaths, deaths which came suddenly upon several members of one family which preceded her own, including her Uncle John's first wife, Asenath.  Asenath was a strange young girl, not even twenty, a maker of "charms and remedies" and a relentless searcher for the treasure supposedly hidden nearby after the Revolutionary War. Horrified, Verity reads her mother's own account of those undiagnosed deaths, including her own symptoms in the days just before her death.
"Every person in this town with the name of Clayton has fallen to it.  It is no wonder people are remembering the stories of a curse upon that wretched family!
Asenath's heart beats slow.  She waters from the eyes, nose, and mouth. Chokes if we lay her down. She is very sleepy, but we are afraid to let her sleep. Those who died fell into a stupor before they passed."

And then Verity turns the page to read her mother's last entry on the day before her death:

"Asenath pins her hopes on Miss Piper's remedies.
Pains so bad I fear I will lose this baby.
Watering like dog..."
Verity realizes that no one is telling her the whole story of her mother's death and strange burial, and she turns to the young apprentice doctor, Hadley Jones, even though she is uneasy with the strong attraction between them.

"The only way to put down a lie is to uncover the truth," she realizes, and when Hadley Jones' diagnosis of poisoning substantiates her own suspicions, Verity realizes that the murders are all tied to the story of the buried treasure and a someone's sinister manipulations to have it  all at last.  The burden of this knowledge and her divided feelings for both Nate and Hadley convince Verity that she must discover the truth behind her mother's death, and soon, before she, too, falls victim to the murderer's long-term greed.

Diane K. Salerni's forthcoming The Caged Graves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) is a crackerjack Gothic romantic mystery, set in a seemingly idyllic small town in 1867 with dark but unspoken conflicts symbolized by the caged graves beside its church.  Verity is an adventurous young woman, one caught up a swirl of   mysterious and threatening events, tales of ghosts and buried gold, witchcraft, dismembered corpses, and grave robbers,  and torn between two attractive suitors earnestly vying for her love.  A solid, well-crafted romance novel built around real history and an absorbing mystery of dark family secrets just right for reading on a dark and stormy night.

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