The death penalty is polarizing. Some people believe that those convicted of terrible crimes like murder should be executed while other people believe that there is nothing that justifies the taking of another person's life. There are many other permutations of these basic beliefs and reasonings behind each diametrically opposed stance. But debating it takes on a whole new wrinkle when the person looking forward to either execution or to pardoning the criminal to a life sentence instead is in fact a relative of the victim. In addition to being a novel about the death penalty and the debate over its morality, Naseem Rakha's novel The Crying Tree looks at the concept of forgiveness and the journey to the place where such a thing is possible even in the midst of great grief and loss.
The novel opens with Oregon State Penitentiary superintendant Tab Mason receiving the execution order and date for one of his prisoners. Almost twenty years after his conviction for the brutal murder of 15 year old Shep Stanley during a burglary attempt at the Stanley home, Daniel Joseph Robbin has stopped his appeals, clearing the way for his execution. It seems straighforward enough. And yet there is nothing straightforward about the situation at all.
Alternating between the current day and the months leading up to Shep's death, nothing is quite like it seems in this case. Nate Stanley moves his entire family, wife Irene, teenaged son Shep, and daughter Bliss from the small Illinois farm town they've lived in their entire lives to a wind-scoured, down on its luck Oregon town for the opportunity to be a deputy sheriff and to give the family a needed change of scenery. Irene is bitter and resentful that she has no say in the move and once in Oregon, she is unhappy and trapped feeling. Only a year into the Stanley's new life in Oregon, Shep is brutally beaten and then shot in their home, dying in his father's arms. The family is completely gutted, trapped in guilt and cycles of blame. Irene sinks into a deep depression and into the bottom of a bottle. In Shep's absence, Bliss doesn't become her parents' focus, instead being completely neglected. All of the Stanleys spend the seemingly unending next years waiting impatiently for word of Daniel Robbins' execution and grieving the sensitive, kind, and musically inclined Shep.
But it's hard to live in a place where hatred, and revenge are your constant companions and Irene finally decides that she needs to free herself from her toxic feelings, finding it within herself to write to Daniel on what would have been Shep's 25th birthday, offering him forgiveness for killing her son. This starts a ten year long correspondence between Irene and Daniel that she keeps a secret from Nate and Bliss. Because of the understanding and compassion Irene has come to feel for Daniel, instead of being elated by a date finally being set for the execution, she is horrified and determined to stop it. But her determination will bring to light long-buried secrets, guilt, and truth that could destroy the Stanleys anew.
The present day chapters are told by various characters, the Stanleys, the prison superintendent, and Daniel, although Irene is definitely the focus of the narration the majority of the time. The back and forth in time is well handled and the characters are all unique enough that there is never any doubt about the narration. The plot twists are not unexpected though and most of the characters are fairly cliched. Although the focus is meant to be on forgiveness, there is still a strong one-sided political statement about the death penalty here. Irene really struggles to come to peace with her decision to forgive Daniel but the end and its ultimate denouement cheapens her struggle. The revelations are heavy-handed and the characters' reactions to them make them less likable over all. The novel does make the reader think though and perhaps, in the end, that's enough.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.