Hazel McHaffie

forgiveness

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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Fact, fiction and fabrication

You’ve heard me say it before: I have an ambivalent relationship with Jodi Picoult‘s books. I’ve dutifully read them all – well, of course I have; her trademark is an ethical question at the heart of the story. So I had to buy her latest one and … wow! it’s in a totally different league from her others. Nothing formulaic; no sense of déjà-vu at all.

But, as ever, she has thoroughly researched her material, and manages to ‘wear the learning lightly’. The descriptions of bread making are as delicious as the accounts of mass exterminations are harrowing.

AuschwitzA nonagenarian, Josef Weber, and a reclusive young woman, Sage Singer, meet in a bakery. On the surface they seem like improbable friends. For seventy years Weber has been hiding; hiding in full view of everyone. He is a model citizen; a much loved German teacher; an active youth worker; a lonely widower with only a dachshund for company. But unbeknown to his community, he is also a murderer; a former Nazi SS guard. Sage, on the other hand, is a young orphaned baker with a facial disfigurement, who works by night and sleeps by day, deliberately avoiding human contact, burdened by guilt. Is this meeting serendipitous? Or is there something more sinister behind it? After keeping his black secret all these years, what has prompted Josef to confess his past to Sage? And how will she react to his shocking revelation? Or to his request: he wants Sage to help him to die …?

Sage was brought up in a Jewish family (as Picoult herself was). Her grandmother, Minka, is a survivor of the Nazi atrocities and of cancer, who has never told her story … until now. And what a story it is – of depravity and courage, of brutality and love, of forgiveness and revenge, or murder and mercy. The first person account of Minka’s experiences of life in Nazi Germany, in Auschwitz, is told without sentimentality, and is all the more poignant and gripping for that.

In the past, Picoult has been given to overly analysing and revealing the psychology of her characters – in my view, anyway. In The Storyteller, however, she has left the experiences, the actions, the lives, to speak for themselves; a brilliant decision and one I’ve very much taken to heart. But she still manages to summarise profound truths in succinct dialogue:

 ‘When a freedom is taken away from you, I suppose, you recognise it as a privilege, not a right.’

 ‘I could never forgive the Schutzhaftlagerführer for killing my best friend … I mean I couldn’t – literally – because it is not my place to forgive him.’

 ‘If you lived through it (the Holocaust), you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it. And if you didn’t, you will never understand.’

Minka, Sage’s grandmother, the storyteller, is at the core of this story. She lived ‘a remarkable life. She watched her nation fall to pieces; and even when she became collateral damage, she believed in the power of the human spirit. She gave when she had nothing; she fought when she could barely stand; she clung to tomorrow when she couldn’t find footing on the rock ledge of yesterday. She was a chameleon, slipping into the personae of a privileged young girl, a frightened teen, a dreamy novelist, a proud prisoner, an army wife, a mother hen. She became whomever she needed to be to survive, but she never let anyone else define her.’ She has also written a powerful fiction of her own.

Other threads – Josef’s story, Sage’s, Minka’s novel – are woven around and through this emotive core, creating at once an absorbing read, a sobering challenge, a powerful allegory, a warming family saga. And the whole leaves the reader asking: What is forgiveness? What is justice? What would I have done?

Highly recommended.

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April Jones and other children

WARNING. Today’s blog is wall-to-wall serious stuff. If you’re feeling a bit low or weepy probably best to leave it for another day. Apologies.

I’ve been much exercised this week by the abduction of little April Jones. You too? Five years old. Still missing. Said to have been murdered. As the police say, every parent’s worst nightmare. Made more poignant by the fact that she was allowed out later than usual to play as a treat because her parents had just had a glowing report of her progress at school.

Preoccupation with this tragedy has taken my thoughts to stories that have similarly gripped my attention in the past.

Since there’s a possibility I might – repeat might – one day write a novel about the deliberate harming of children, I’ve been collecting information on the subject for years. The file includes some harrowing stories, particularly those involving miscarriages of justice.

D’you remember the high profile cases of Sally Clark, Trupti Patel, Angela Cannings; all suspected of harming their own children; all later exonerated? And the scary discoveries that discredited the forensic evidence against them given by the renowned expert witness, Professor Sir Roy Meadows? They’re certainly engraved on my memory.

Try as we may to keep an open mind and reflect on all these cases involving children in a measured and reasoned way, inevitably media coverage influences reactions. Vulnerable youngsters suffering at the hands of those who should be their principal protectors and advocates … happy children being taken away by social services … innocent parents being accused of abuse … miscarriages of justice …  Stirs profound and troubling emotions, doesn’t it? And that’s from a safe distance. How do the wider families of these victims cope in such circumstances? How do they live with such knowledge, whether or not the accusations are true?

And then there’s the recent spate of cases where children have been found murdered by a parent – suffocated, stabbed, shot, burned, thrown. Beyond imagination.

But in the midst of all this stark reality in my file is a most unusual snippet relating to one of these incomprehensible crimes – something that impressed me greatly. It’s a letter that was reproduced in several newspapers a couple of months ago (in mid July), written by a grieving grandfather. This man’s son-in-law, Ceri Fuller, is believed to have driven his three children, Sam, 12, Rebecca, 8, and Charlotte, 7, to a secluded woodland 75 miles from their home, where he stabbed them to death before jumping 65ft to his own death. To date the motive remains unclear although salacious snippets of information have been offered as ammunition for speculators.

Whatever the rationale, whatever the turmoil in this man’s head, the fact remains that the mother, Ruth, and grandparents have lost three children in brutal circumstances. And yet Ruth’s father, Ron Tocknell, an artist and illustrator from Gloucestershire, has insisted there were ‘no villains, only victims‘.

He wrote an open 1,800-word letter to his local paper which is so moving and thought-provoking that I’m going to reproduce some of it here and leave it as its own testimony.

‘Perhaps some of you feel anger toward him. You know him only as the man who did this.

I know him as the man who fell in love with my daughter. I know him as the man who worked tirelessly to support the family he worshipped. I know him as the man who, together with my daughter, raised my beautiful grandchildren in an environment of love and joy and laughter …

When he had to address misbehaviour he did so with reason and never with punishment.

Perhaps we will never understand the torment in Ceri’s mind that drove him to such an act but I know that this is not an act of malice or spite. I weep for my daughter’s pain. I weep for the loss of my grandchildren and I weep for Ceri’s pain and confusion in equal measure. There are no villains in this dreadful episode.

There are only victims. He will always remain the man I am proud to have called my son-in-law …

We cannot dictate the random paths our lives take. I would ask you all to suspend judgment and find compassion for all.’

Puts a very different complexion on things, doesn’t it? And a salutary reminder that the stories that reach us are only partial pictures.

Sobering, lowering, troubling stuff. Just thinking of these children and their families makes me wonder if in reality I could bear to write a book on the subject. And if I did, if anyone would ever want to read it. Probably not.

 

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Warrington travesty

When our railings and gates were stolen eighteen months ago I found it hard to understand the mentality of people who would capitalise on others’ misfortune. Ruined railings Since then I’ve listened and watched with a growing sense of incredulity, a catalogue of sorry tales involving similar opportunistic or planned crimes, some involving personal injury as well as loss to the innocent victims. Apparently, according to this week’s figures, there are now 1000 metal thefts a week, costing the economy £770 million a year. Birmingham alone had 950 drain covers stolen in just six months last year. One church elsewhere has had its lead stolen seven times! Staggering statistics.

But surely revulsion plumbed new depths with the incident in Warrington earlier this month. It involved a plaque worth a mere £30 to scrap dealers. But this was not just any old strip of bronze; it commemorated the life and death of two young boys – 12 year old Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, who was only 3 – innocent victims caught up in an IRA bomb blast in 1993. What kind of a mentality sinks this low?

The names of children killed in brutal circumstances remain in the memory, don’t they? Damilola Taylor, Stephen Lawrence, Sarah Payne, Baby P, James Bulger, to name but a few. And where the parents respond to the event with selflessness and generosity, devoting their lives to bringing some good out of their tragedy, these memories are kept fresh and vital.

Instead of spending the rest of their days railing against the perpetrators of a crime that robbed them of their beloved son,Tim’s parents, Colin and Wendy Parry, became active in the peace process in Northern Ireland, vigorously campaigning for an end to the hostilities and divisions that had torn that community apart for so long.The community too, reacted positively by setting up The Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace which works nationally with people affected by conflict and violence.

Now it feels as if the thugs who desecrated this memorial are thumbing their noses at the Parry’s altruism. Not surprisingly there has been a national outpouring of sympathy and outrage which Warrington describes as ‘overwhelming’. The plaque will be replaced. Donations are still flooding in to the Foundation.

What’s more, the chief executive has appealed for everyone to follow the Parry’s example in ‘taking a positive approach to managing conflict, rather than engaging in any negative actions as a result of this incident.’

What a fine example of forgiveness and generosity of spirit. One can only hope that at least some metal thieves somewhere will be chastened and shamed into reforming their ways.

 

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