The Crying Tree
by Naseem Rakha
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Any book that I stay up reading until 2 a.m. deserves five stars. I hadn't done that since Harry Potter 7 came out...and I had jet lag then because we were in Hawaii.
I heard Rakha being interviewed on NPR and knew I had to read her book. A broadcast journalist for "All Things Considered" and an Oregonian, she covered the first execution in Oregon for 30 years, and the seed of this book was planted.
I'm fascinated by the themes of deep forgiveness and grace, perhaps because I wonder whether I would have the capacity to do such a thing myself if one of my loved ones were brutally hurt or worse yet, murdered.
Irene Stanley is an old-fashioned wife in rural Indiana when her sheriff's deputy husband comes home one day and announces that they are moving to eastern Oregon. No discussion, no argument, she is advised by her pastor to accept her husband's decision, even though she feels in her soul that is a very bad move.
A year after the family has settled into Blaine, Oregon, her son, Shep, is found brutally murdered. Each family member--mother, father, and sister--react to his death in different ways. Irene becomes an alcoholic and severely depressed. Bliss, only 12 when her brother was killed, grows up feeling completely neglected by her parents.
The killer is prosecuted and put on death row. Years after Shep's death, Irene finally begins to come out of her cocoon and feels compelled to write to Daniel, her son's killer. And gradually, she finds a way to forgive him. Rakha's characters find that just like hate, forgiveness fills you up. And forgiveness is like "pain and grace all tied up in one."
As Irene's life and world view changes, the secrets begin to leak out.
The book's format is to alternate chapters between the 1980s (when the murder occurred) and 2004, and to alternate perspectives among the family members (mostly Irene), Daniel (on death row), and a deeply damaged but compassionate-at-heart Oregon prison superintendent, Tab Mason. (Usually these shifting times and character viewpoints bother me, but it didn't in this book.) Other reviewers have criticized the book for including one-dimensional characters, but we all know for a fact that there are people like Irene's sister, pastor, or husband out in the world among us. People can have very simple, even hateful views of anything that conflicts with their way of thinking and being.
A few people commented that they would have liked the book to be longer, so they could have learned more about Irene's relationship with her son, or what was going on in Nate's mind. But I believe that Rakha kept that deliberately fuzzy for the purposes of the story.
I saw a few of the plot elements coming, but Rakha might have wanted this. It didn't matter anyway. I loved this story of pain and grace, and I especially enjoyed reading this fictional story of forgiveness after reading the memoir Picking Cotton earlier this year...a story of a woman who was raped and forgave her rapist, only to discover that he wasn't really her rapist after all and she had accused the wrong man. Not only did she forgive him, but he forgave her and they actually became friends. Do you have such a capacity to forgive in you?
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