Becoming a parent (which my wife and I did two years ago) does some strange and unexpected things to your brain. I’ve spent the entirety of my time on this earth identifying with the kid in every parent-child relationship. I’ve always seen myself as the kid. I had no other perspective from which to peer at the world. And then…..it shifted. Given those same parent-child situations, I now see it from the other side. This is such a simple shift in perspective, but there’s a world of difference between the two.
Because of this, my response to this book is wholly different than what I would’ve experienced two-plus years ago.
In 1999, in a small Texas town, a white cheerleader, Nicole Yarber, disappears and is presumed dead. A witness comes forward with testimony that she was abducted by a black classmate, Dante Drumm, of hers, and police waste no time arresting the young man. They coerce a confession from him, and he is quickly tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. In 2007, Dante’s execution is fast approaching, and in a small town in Kansas, a Lutheran minister, Keith Shroeder, is approached by a man on the brink of death. This man, Travis Boyette, confesses to the killing of Nicole, eight years prior. He’s a serial rapist with a long rap sheet and can take police to the body of the missing girl, whom he buried in Missouri. But Dante is quickly running out of time, and his lawyers are exhausting their last chances for a stay of execution.
Much of this novel is a tense race against the clock, as Reverend Shroeder tries to coax a seemingly unwilling Boyette into revealing the location of Nicole’s body to police.
Beyond this point, there are major spoilers.
To some degree, the first half of this book took a lot of courage on Grisham’s part. This book doesn’t end with Keith and Travis racing to Texas, getting their just under the wire, and Dante’s life being spared at the last minute. Keith and Travis do race to Texas, and they do make it just in time….only the system completely and totally fails to save Dante’s life. The appeals court ignores Dante’s lawyer, the governor actively pushes for the execution to proceed, and Dante is murdered by the state of Texas, just as scheduled.
It’s an utterly devastating sequence of events. There’s a scene with Dante’s mother touching his cooling body for the first time in nearly a decade that will wreck you.
But….I kind of feel like the book lost its way afterwards.
Much like with A Time to Kill, racial tension is at the heart of this story, which honestly feels somewhat prescient – not that you had to be an oracle in 2010 to see that there’s a deep racial divide in this country, but this was before Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The racial tension for most of America, I think, was on a slow burn at this point. We were still riding high from Obama’s election.
But there really is no pressure release, no outlet for the rage at Dante’s execution. Dante’s mother calls for the black community to stop the violence. To leave the streets. To go home. And they do. The racial tension is eased through the power of high school football.
I’m sorta serious with that.
The second half (or last third, more accurately) is more a tying of loose ends than it is a closure for the characters. Everyone just kind of….moves on. Two helicopters with units from Texas are downed in Fallujah, and that diverts attention from the wrongful execution. The disgraced DA resigns. Dante’s lawyer files numerous lawsuits against the parties responsible for the execution. Keith and his family move to Austin, Texas after resigning his position with his church. And then it’s just….over. This book doesn’t end, it just kind stops.
Which, in a sense, is how it should be. It’s realistic.
The streets of Ferguson are quiet, today. The crowds have dispersed. The broken windows have been mended. The police force is….I don’t know. I can’t find current information. But in a city that was approximately 60% African American, Ferguson only had 3 black officers in a police force that numbered 53 in 2014. Charlotte is quiet. Dallas is quiet. Baltimore is quiet. South Carolina is quiet. Florida is quiet. So the idea that we, as a nation, would move on from the wrongful execution of a young black man is….entirely plausible.
On the other hand, Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012, and George Zimmerman’s trial ended in July of the following year. The violence didn’t end there, it grew and spread across the nation. Charlotte, a city not far from me, erupted in September of last year over the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. But an odd thing has happened.
Donald Trump got elected president of the United States. The anger over police brutality hasn’t gone away – it’s been consumed, I think, by a larger movement of discontent over the presidency. There has been near continuous civil unrest and protesting since the November election. I don’t think there’s enough energy in the system to sustain the protests that grew out out of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, et al.
But before Trump, I don’t think the rage was going away. And that’s where Grisham missteps. I don’t think communities around the nation erupted because they were suddenly aware that police brutality was happening, or that the murder of black people could so frequently go unpunished. No. Black communities have been living with that reality as long as there’s been a United States. This level of disaffection grows so long as there’s no pressure release, because people can only take so much. Whether we’re talking about Ferguson in 2014 or LA in 1992 or Watts in 1965, the rage and discontent builds over time, before erupting over an event that could’ve happened at any other time and gone relatively unnoticed.
Grisham does a wonderful job, here, describing the event, but the novel falters somewhat when detailing how that event is interpreted by the larger black community. And while I applaud Grisham’s attempt to tackle these issues, they may be a beyond beyond him. I think his focus was more on exploring how and why we execute people more than it was the broader cultural response to inequality.
But this is an engaging and effective story.