In May 1985, 15-year-old Shep Stanley was shot and killed in his Oregon home. His killer, Daniel Robbin, was sentenced to the death penalty, and in October 2004, Tab Mason, superintendent of the state penitentiary, received notice that the execution date had been set.
This is the basic premise of The Crying Tree by debut novelist Naseem Rakha. The book focuses on Shep’s mother, Irene, who doted on her son in life and immerses herself in grief after his death. It is only after she decides to secretly write a letter of forgiveness to Daniel that she is able to pull herself out of her despair. When Irene learns that Daniel’s execution date has been set, her feelings about the event that she had initially hoped for are complicated by the years of correspondence with him.
This novel is reminiscent of the work of Jodi Picoult, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your view of Picoult. Me, I’m indifferent to her work. I don’t mind reading it if it’s suggested for book club or the only thing available on audio at the library, but in my experience, her work is too formulaic to be satisfying. And this was also the case with Rakha’s book. I didn’t mind reading it, and I suspect that it would make a great conversation starter at a book club like mine. (We tend to focus on the issues in the books we read, rather than on the writing.) However, I couldn’t quite bring myself to care about the people in this book because they felt less like people and more like representatives of various points of view.
Rakha does do a nice job of juggling the multiple time lines present in the book. The opening chapters alternate between the days immediately after the execution date is set and the days leading up to Shep’s death. Eventually, the earlier time line catches up with the later time line, and the book follows a straightforward path to its ending. There are some secrets revealed along the way that are not altogether surprising because Rakha lays the groundwork well, but they aren’t obvious either. Unfortunately, one particular revelation turned the story into something altogether different from the exploration of the power of forgiveness that it started out to be. The element of forgiveness is still present, but the impact is lessened as the story goes on. Instead, we get to consider a completely different issue, and that issue is not handled with much depth.
The biggest problem I have with the book is with the characters. They’re just one stereotype after another. The characters who have been victimized are sensitive and thoughtful people who, perhaps, have made some mistakes that weren’t entirely in their control. The only men who are at all compassionate were beaten up by life somehow at a very early age. (Eyeroll.) Nate, Shep’s dad, is a tough, uncompromising military man who went into law enforcement and wants his son to be a tough guy like him. The members of the clergy are mean-spirited and judgmental. The women all have a little more wisdom and insight into the human condition than the men do. It’s just so darn predictable.
If you enjoy the works of Jodi Picoult or are looking for a decent book club read, you could do worse than The Crying Tree, but if you’re looking for a compelling exploration of the death penalty, you could do much, much better. Try Dead Man Walking, The Executioner’s Song, or In Cold Blood instead. Those books tell true stories, and truth is, in this case, much more powerful than fiction.