Hazel McHaffie

crime and punishment

The Crying Tree

Daniel Robbins has been on death row for nineteen years (half of his life) when the execution warrant arrives.

29 October 2004. One minute after midnight.

29 October is my birthday, so the date instantly hooked me in. When we’re young we count down the days – or sleeps! – to such dates; imagine counting down to your own death, or that of someone you love.

Robbins had a troubled upbringing, in and out of care, and there’s now no one in the outside world who’s in contact with him. But he remembers one thing his real mother taught him: Truth is not necessarily what people want to hear, and now he’s in prison because he failed to tell the truth – the truth about how, in 1985, he came to shoot dead 15-year-old Shep Stanley. Shep’s father is Deputy Sheriff Nathaniel Stanley (Nate), and it was he who found the fatally wounded boy. He cradled Shep while he bled to death, and his testimony helped put the 19-year-old shooter in the state penitentiary, and on death row.

Shep’s mother, Irene, is beside herself, depressed and suffocated by pain. Shep was the apple of her eye, her world. Even her daughter, Bliss, feels left out. Believing she couldn’t cope with hearing the truth about what really happened on the night of her son’s murder, Nate keeps the secret for nineteen years. Until, that is, he discovers his wife has been secretly writing to the condemned man for years … that she’s forgiven him. Incensed beyond control he blurts out the truth. The revelation catapults Irene into a frenzy of activity which takes her all the way to the window opposite her son’s killer.

The book, The Crying Tree ( a perfect title) is cleverly structured. The first section flips between the years leading up to the murder and its aftermath (1983-1990) – and the days immediately after the death warrant comes through (the first two days of October 2004). The second part picks up at 1995 and takes us up to 7 October 2004. The third and fourth sections inch us ominously through the remaining days of October 2004 as the condemned man counts down the rest of his mortal life.

I didn’t see the twist at the end of section 3 coming – always a thrill! – and Irene’s reaction to the truth Nate reveals is powerfully captured in some brilliant passages describing her whole life disintegrating (P247-8), beginning with ‘Irene drove south on Highway 3, speeding past river towns like Neunert and Grand Tower. Headlights made her squint, trains made her stop, and the words her husband had said made her shake with fury … she had no idea what to do with Nate’s confession.’

Alongside the story of the Stanleys’ life and tragedies, we walk beside the man responsible for masterminding the actual execution, Superintendent Tab Mason. He’s a damaged soul himself after years of terrible abuse. He feels the weight of his responsibility acutely – it’s not a job, it’s an ‘ordeal’ – and he has real issues with the notion of forgiveness. Execution is a rare occurrence in Oregon; the last one was seven years earlier, and this is Mason’s first case being ‘in the driving seat’. ‘We’re talking about a man’s life, and I won’t be tolerating any talk that may lead someone to believe we are in any way eager to take on this job.’  He’s determined that every man jack involved in any way, is prepared for this. ‘There are thresholds on the road to killing someone … everyone, from officer to cleanup crew, had to figure out whether or not he had it in him to cross over that line.’

But his careful planning and preparation is thrown into chaos when the murdered man’s mother writes to him … when she arrives seeking mercy … when her daughter supports her – a woman who is herself a criminal prosecutor who’s ‘probably put more men to death than he had sitting in his entire unit‘! It’s a ‘compellingly outrageous‘ situation to be in.

The author of this superb book, Naseem Rakha, an acclaimed journalist, doesn’t shirk the big questions either. The rightness of capital punishment. The Biblical understanding of Do Not Kill. Religion and homosexuality. The meaning and consequences of forgiveness. How grief affects people. Punishment and imprisonment. Nature versus nurture. Weighty questions all.

And her command of language is fabulous. I Iove the idea of
– a face ‘buttered with sympathy’ or ‘buffed of expression and the eyes drained of color’, of – a man running to ‘get as far away from himself as possible’.
 – the women in a backwater, ‘their long flannel shirts covering up what gravity had claimed’.
– the people in the tavern ‘strung out on a line waiting for life to turn better’.

Her masterly handling of suspense and conflict, particularly in the chambers where the deed will be/is done, chills the spine. I experienced a CT procedure recently which necessitated everyone else leaving the room leaving me alone in the tunnel with an IV infusion to automatically shoot dye into my veins and thence into my heart, while a robotic disembodied voice warned me it was coming, and my body reacted strangely to the substance. It felt weirdly isolating. And I could see parallels. Only, in my case, I lived to recall the experience!

The Crying Tree is no run-of-the-mill miscarriage of justice story, no who-really-done-it. This is a tale that gets deep inside the heart of a family torn apart by the murder of a beloved and talented son, an act that forever changes the meaning and cohesion of their lives and relationships. Some of the attitudes and language make us cringe today in the UK, but this was the US in the 2000s, and it’s a salutary reminder of how prejudice, ignorance and intolerance can ruin lives. Shep’s mother ends up realising she failed her son, but ‘We all make mistakes … Every one of us. And we all pay. One way or another, we all pay.’

A masterpiece from a hugely talented writer.

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