Naseem Rakha's The
Crying Tree (Broadway, $14 trade paper reprint, 9780767931748/0767931742, July 2010) has
garnered many awards and accolades--it was a 2010 Pacific Northwest
Booksellers Award winner, is a 2010 Target Stores Breakout Pick and a favorite
handsell at bookstores. Now it has been chosen as the only book by an American
author for the relaunch of the U.K.'s Richard and Judy Book Club. Rakha is a broadcast journalist whose stories have been heard on NPR. She lives
in Oregon's Willamette Valley with her
husband, son and a bunch of animals.
The Crying Tree is a
mesmerizing novel about tragedy and the redemptive power of forgiveness. The
Stanleys had moved from Illinois to Oregon and were settling in, despite some
initial resistance from mother Irene and 15-year-old
Shep. But on May 6, 1985, Daniel Robbin apparently beat and then shot Shep
while burgarizing the boy's home, just as his father walked in. Shep died in his
father's arms. On October 1, 2004, Robbin stopped his appeals after 19 years on
death row. His execution is scheduled for the end of the month. Tab Mason,
superintendent at the Oregon State Penitentiary, is distressed because he doesn't
want to preside over an execution. And Irene Stanley wants to stop the
execution. How Irene got to a place of forgiveness and how the tragedy
affecting her family--daughter Bliss and husband Nate--is interwoven with Mason's
own journey and a search for the truth of what happened 19 years ago.
Rakha has written a book that is almost
impossible to put down. It is hauntingly beautiful, with wonderfully complex
characters; there are a few surprises in the story, but the point is not the
mysteries of fact, but the mysteries of the heart.
She discussed her book with us shortly after the
Richard and Judy pick was announced.
Your main theme is forgiveness--its
value and its difficulty. Why do you think forgiveness is so hard?
It is hard because it is not
natural, nor is it necessarily supported by society. When we hear of people
forgiving the unforgivable, we consider it an anomaly and think only a few are
able to be so generous. If we were to consider that forgiveness is often not at
all generous but instead an act of self-preservation, people may understand it
a bit differently and consider it as not so improbable.
Many of the crime victims I
have met that have later come to forgive their offenders speak of forgiveness
being a gift they gave themselves, not the person that harmed them.
I also think forgiveness is
hard because the person we often have the most difficulty forgiving is
ourselves. The characters in The Crying
Tree all battle with this, as do the majority of the inmates I have met
with since my book's publication. Forgiveness is a process that requires a
great deal of introspection, meditation and honesty--endeavors that can cause
pain, but also bring healing.
include forgiveness, or are they separate?
The root meaning of justice is
to restore balance. The justice system in the United States tries to do this by
enacting a system of penalties for crimes. In reality though, these penalties
do little, if anything, to bring a sense of balance back into a victim's life.
Crime subordinates its victims, makes them powerless.
True restorative justice would
include opportunities for victims to get the counseling, information and
assistance they need to restore their sense of balance and power. Forgiveness
is often key to regaining that power, and it often comes from victims having an
opportunity to communicate with their offenders. Unfortunately, this is often
not allowed in cases of serious and violent crime.
You say in the book that
restorative justice is not considered in high-profile cases. Why is that?
Actually that is changing.
Texas, oddly, was the first state to allow victims to meet with their
offenders. Now 24 states have restorative justice programs. If you think about
it, the perpetrator of a crime is the only one who can answer certain questions
about the crime. Sitting down across from an offender, hearing their answers,
their story, seeing their remorse and regret--if it can happen, it is usually a
life-changing experience for both victims and offenders.
You live in Oregon now; have you
lived in the Midwest? Your description of the landscape there is so perfect.
I was born in Chicago and
spent eight years in southern Illinois. I really love the area. My background
is in geology and natural resource management, and I've worked with ranchers,
farmers, tribes, government and non-government institutions all over the
country. I have a deep appreciation for the land and the people and communities
that depend on what comes out of it.
In Oregon, Mason wishes for a
storm; back in Illinois, Irene, the boy's mother, gets a storm. Storms seem to
be a cleansing and transformative event.
I love that observation. I had
no idea Irene was going to be in a storm. The scene before, she and her sister
had conflict, and she hears a rumble of thunder. In the next scene, the storm
just got bigger and bigger. When I was done writing, I understood the purpose
of the device, but I had not planned it in any way. Writing is like that for
me. Events come as a surprise. I don't plot. I know my beginning and ending,
and the middle crisis point, but don't plan much more than that.
I love Jeff
and Mason. Do you have favorite characters?
I fell in love with all my
characters. Jeff is an unsung hero, someone who is always there for the Stanley
family. Mason is a scarred warrior, lame and unable to figure out how to heal
himself until he encounters Bliss and Irene Stanley. Irene is the soldier,
fighting for life even when she thinks she can't stand the idea of taking
another breath. Bliss is also a kind of wounded hero, finding a way to help her
family at its most tragic moments. Nate, of course, is the tragic figure--alone
in his world of fear and lies-- the one character that does not change much
until the end, when he is finally free of his deception. And Shep--he is the
innocence that lies in us. The protected self that strives to be more than
people believe is possible.
This is Mason's story, too. Why did
you give him vitiligo? And when, in the writing process?
Tab Mason didn't exist until
about six weeks into the writing process. One day the prison PR person walked
into her boss's office, and I could just picture this black man, pristine, good
suit, sharpened pencils, with one white hand. I decided to stick with him. He's
a black man in Salem, which makes him unique, in charge of a mostly white
prison. The white hand isolates him even more. Mason is also a man running from
his past, and does his best to ignore the toxic emotions that live inside of
him. Vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder that destroys from the inside out; in
many ways it was an apt metaphor for a man whose internal life was working its
way to the surface.
Thinking about Mason and his
brother, Tulane, and his mother's pleas to forgive his brother over and over--can
forgiveness be misdirected, misused?
Yes. What his mother was
saying is that we're not going to confront or solve the problems. She was
equating forgiving with forgetting. So when Mason meets Irene and Bliss his
belief about forgiveness is shattered.
What do you think being chosen by
Richard and Judy will do, besides increase the sales of The Crying Tree?
The Richard and Judy Book club
is the hottest book group in Great Britain--think Oprah, but with British
accents. It's exciting to me that a very American book about a very American
theme--crime and the death penalty in America--is on the bestseller list in
Europe. The book has people talking and asking why we continue to execute
people in this country. I did not write The
Crying Tree to be a treatise. I wrote it only to give people an experience
of what it is like to face murder and its subsequent punishment. I wanted
people to see and feel what it is like to wait for "justice to be served,"
and then watch as the definition of justice changes in each character's minds.
The Crying Tree is making people think and ask
questions, and I love that.--Marilyn Dahl