I try to stay abreast of the American publishing scene, but my focus is on regional books and authors, and doing my part to encourage good writing in the Pacific Northwest.
There are times when my admittedly modest profile means that I get overlooked by the big East Coast publishers, and I’ll get a break-out book from a regional author way too late – if at all – to give it timely coverage. To my mortification, that was the case last year with both Jamie Ford’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” and Naseem Rakha’s “The Crying Tree.”
But the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association recently gave a new boost to “The Crying Tree” when it bestowed its 2010 PNBA Book Awards, so I’m scuttling in belatedly with this review of a work that addresses some issues that are both ages old and germane today.
Rakha is a broadcast journalist who lives in Silverton, Ore.; “The Crying Tree” is her first novel. In 1996, assigned to cover Oregon’s first execution in more than three decades, Rakha interviewed death-row inmates, Department of Corrections employees and the family members of victims. These were stories of horror, loss and anguish, but Rakha detected something else as well.
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It is too simple to call it “closure,” as many nowadays seem eager to do. More accurately, Rakha identified continuity: learning how to go on, to accept and possibly even to reconcile.
Rakha took these impressions and wove them into a work of fiction about the Stanley family: Nate; his wife, Irene; and their adolescent children, Shep and Bliss.
The Stanleys have recently moved from Illinois to the Oregon high desert where Nate has a new job as deputy sheriff. They begin to settle into their new surroundings and make new acquaintances, but in a matter of months, Shep is murdered – the victim of an apparently bungled home invasion.
The family is devastated. When a suspect is arrested a few days later – Daniel Robbin, a young man with a checkered past – they are eager to see him punished to the fullest extent possible.
But scenes in “The Crying Tree” are presented as a scattering of puzzle pieces – elements of grief, fear, love and fact that gradually fit together over the 19 years between Shep’s murder and Robbin’s execution. And Rakha shows us that while developing the frame for a puzzle is a relatively straightforward task, piecing together the interior of the story – the motivations, the emotional responses – can be a lot more complex.
There are a few problems, beginning with the inconsequential but nonetheless surprising assertion that Oregon is pronounced “organ,” and moving on to occasional instances of heavy-handed exposition or the compulsion to pound home parallel references to “Old Yeller” and “Silent Night.”
But I wept, and then wept some more, at the story’s conclusion, which both patiently and fiercely asserts the transformative power of forgiveness, even in the aftermath of unthinkable anguish.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.