Creating a precedent for forgiveness


The Crying Tree
Naseem Rakha
368 pages, hardcover: $22.95.
Broadway Books, 2009.

The word "forgiveness" conjures up images of long, damp hugs, sobbing and weakness. Our movie theaters, television screens and books are filled with heroes who violently punish evildoers, not people forgiving each other. In real life, our justice system steers clear of reconciliation and dispenses vengeance instead.

At first, vengeance is what Irene Stanley, the central character in Oregon writer Naseem Rakha's novel, The Crying Tree, wants. She's wallowed in anger for years, waiting for an execution that doesn't happen. She is obsessed and even suicidal, filled with bitter hatred. But who can blame her? Who wouldn't want revenge against the person who killed your 15-year-old son?

But then, after a decade of her life has been ground into dust by the ponderous wheels of the justice system, Irene discovers that her "hate had run its course and depression had whittled her to nothing." And so she writes to her son's murderer: "I forgive you for what you did to my son. ... I understand people make mistakes in life, Mr. Robbin, and I forgive you yours."

Irene's decision launches her into uncharted territory. While she may be ready for forgiveness, the rest of the world is not –– especially not the prison system. Forgiveness forces Irene beyond the narrow mindset of her southern Illinois hometown, where a "fierce and angry God" reigns over Creekside Baptist Church. She finds herself alone, without precedent or guidance. Knowing that her friends and family, especially her husband, will never understand, she keeps her correspondence with Robbin a secret.

There are other secrets in this book. But even though The Crying Tree is her debut novel, Rahka entwines these twists into her plot with expert timing. Lucid scenes reveal the complex grief and enduring frustration experienced by the surviving members of the Stanley family.

Despite a few soapboxy moments, The Crying Tree offers readers an enthralling story. It also offers a sense of hope: the possibility that we, as a society, may someday find a place for genuine forgiveness within our justice system.

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