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Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Part I, Chapter 1 of The Crying Tree, by Naseem Rakha, begins on October 1, 2004, as prison superintendent Tab Mason learns that an execution date has been set for one of his death row inmates. Daniel Robbin has been on death row for 19 years-- half his life--convicted of the May 1985 murder of 15-year-old Shep Stanley, son of Nate and Irene Stanley, but now Robbin has stopped appealing his sentence, and Mason will have to arrange for and preside over his first execution.

Chapter 2 takes us back in time to September 20, 1983, the day Irene Stanley’s husband, Nate, came home to announce that he wanted to pull up their family’s southern Illinois stakes for a move to Oregon. Irene protests. The farmhouse the family lives in was built by her great-grandfather, and Irene grew up in it. She and Nate graduated went to school in this community and were married in her family church. Everyone they know is here. But Nate’s mind is made up. He wants a change.

From these two different starting points, the two tracks of the story move forward, each in turn, though we know, from Chapter 1, even before meeting the Stanley family in Chapter 2, that Shep died a violent death two years later. Daniel Robbin, the prisoner on death row, seems a cool, unemotional man. He shows no fear of his own death and expresses no regrets for Shep’s. The omniscient narrator, however, is only putting a couple of cards at a time on the table.

Irene Stanley and Tab Mason are the two main characters, and we see most of the story through their eyes, share their feelings through most of the novel’s chapters. Slowly, gradually, their secrets are laid open. Irene and Tab are not the only ones who have secrets, however, and the story’s tempo accelerates as more and more secrets are revealed. There is no one, it seems, who has nothing to hide.

If The Crying Tree were a thriller, secrets and revelations would carry the weight of the story and serve as its focus. Instead they are—not merely incidental, because they reveal some of the deepest aspects of the characters concerned--but certainly secondary to the more important questions of this novel: Can terrible psychic trauma be forgotten if starved of attention? What of forgiveness? Is it a human possibility, or are some acts unforgivable? Can one “move on” without forgiving? Is it possible to find “closure” for the murder of one’s child, and what would make that possible?

This story covers the years 1983-2004. I cannot imagine any shorter period of time would have sufficed for the journey made by Nate, Irene and Bliss (Shep’s sister) Stanley, Daniel Robbin and Tab Mason. Even if you read this book in two days, as I did, you will feel time’s cruelty and the family’s sense of the horror of continuing injustice, year after year. Mason’s failed marriage and the daughter he has all but lost, along with the enigma of Daniel Robbin, present different kinds of scar tissue. Everyone is wounded and struggling to carry on.

As the date draws near for the execution, the first in Oregon in many years, the press is hungry for answers. They want precise details of the procedure. They ask if the prisoner will feel any pain.
Mason wanted to say, Of course there’s pain, you assholes. There’s always pain. The pain of knowing, the pain of waiting, the pain of anticipation. And then there’s that other pain. The pain of planning out an execution. ... A job governors, kings, and heads of state have given to lesser men throughout time. Men never meant to sit with society—the pariahs, the recluses, the ones with the hoods, who either found a way to separate themselves from the results of their work or died from it, one execution at a time. That guy who’d done fifty executions in Florida had quit. Just up and quit one day. Told Mason that he couldn’t get the eyes out of his head. Fifty sets of them, staring.

There were tolls, Mason wanted to say. Tolls both sides of the road. But the press hadn’t asked about that. And if they had, what would he have said?

What Mason has to say to the press is carefully scripted: Stick to the cold, dry facts. Use official terminology. Refer to the execution as “the procedure.”

I believe that how it deals with violent criminals is one of the severest tests of any society. I also feel strongly (I know it is true for me) that forgiveness, whether for great betrayals or minor offenses, is one of the greatest spiritual challenges that human beings face. Another is asking for forgiveness.

The questions at the end of my paperback copy of The Crying Tree were formulated by the author. She introduces them by giving her own background to this story:
In 1996 I was assigned to cover Oregon’s first execution in over thirty years. At the time I had never given much thought to the death penalty and what it would take for the state to plan out, prepare, and then kill a man. After the assignment, I wanted to learn more so I began to interview death-row inmates, the people they had harmed, and the men and women we entrust to carry out our nation’s most severe sentence. During the time I heard many stories, some of them abhorrent and some heartbreaking, but by far the most compelling were those told by the people who had come to terms with the murder of a loved one and no longer felt it necessary to seek retribution. This arc, from the most desperate kind of anguish to reconciliation and even love, stunned me....

The questions that follow are thought-provoking and would add greatly to a discussion of the book, but I want to pose different questions, though they too can only be considered by readers who have first read the entire novel. Realizing that this book is fiction, then, and the details of its story not those of any particular capital case:

How did you feel during the last scene? Had Shep been a different person, had Daniel been different, and this scene therefore not possible, what feelings might you have had at the end of the story? Suppose Shep’s father had not come home while Daniel was in the house? Would Irene’s forgiveness of Daniel make as much sense if the facts of Shep’s death had been different? (Remember when Irene comes to the point of forgiveness and how much she knows then.) How far are the lessons learned by this fictional family over the 19-year period of the novel generalizable to other human beings suffering similar losses? If you think that the novel is "not realistic," which parts of the story do not ring true to you? In your own life, have there been lesser traumatic events which you still struggle to put behind you?

I ask these questions because I have taught classes in applied ethics and, knowing that no one comes to the issue of capital punishment without a strong opinion, I’m sure there will be those who would dismiss The Crying Tree as “only a novel,” “not real life,” “nothing like most murders,” etc. The first hurdle to a fair assessment, therefore, will be to enter as fully as possible into the world of the novel. The second will be to accept its possibilities while wrestling with the questions posed by our everyday reality.

This is a very challenging novel, well worth taking the time to read and reflect upon. I would suggest that reading groups follow up with a true-life memoir, Dreams From the Monster Factory, because these issues are not going to fade away in our lifetime.


Dawn said...

Sounds like an enthralling and thought provoking book. I'm having trouble staying awake to read anything lately. Have to go back to work has just about worn me out! :) This sounds like a really good book club book though, I'll suggest it at our Dec meeting.

P. J. Grath said...

Sorry to hear your job is so exhausting, Dawn, but I'm sure your book club would not regret taking on this novel. Talk about a book to generate discussion!