Review of ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson

I don’t normally go for non-fiction, but this title grabbed my attention as I was searching for something else on Overdrive (library’s answer to online books).  I read it just a few days.

Bryan Stevenson is a black lawyer, working in Alabama, and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit-making initiative supporting prisoners, largely those on Death Row.  The book covers the period from the 1980s onwards, the first couple of decades seeing an escalation in executions following the lifting of the unofficial moratorium on executions in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s.  In the initial stages Stevenson was not very successful,  but, as time went on, he and his organisation grow in confidence and stature, and the American establishment’s enthusiasm for the death penalty waned.

If any of us needed convincing, Stevenson makes a powerful case against capital punishment generally, and in the USA in particular:

  • Miscarriages of justice.  Ergo, wrong people convicted.   In the stories Stevenson writes up, this happens a lot.   Walter McMillan’s was a case Stevenson pursued vigorously, despite obstacles put in his way, by the judiciary, the police and politicians.  In McMillan, he sensed the quiet certainty in the tone of someone who is innocent.  EJI secured McMillan’s release after a long legal battle, although, sadly, the poor man was so traumatised by being on Death Row that he died prematurely through dementia a few years later.
  • Law is expensive.   Therefore poorer people, especially people of colour, are badly represented or not represented.   In a number of cases, the legal advice initially offered to defendants was so bad that Stevenson was able to ask for legal review.
  • Racial prejudice.  Death Row is overwhelmingly populated by black people.  At the beginning of the time about which Stevenson was writing,  courts and juries would always find in favour of the white party and inter-racial sex was viewed as an act so vile and disgusting that any defendant practising it would automatically be found guilty of all other charges.  And if he wasn’t already indicted, a crime would be found and pinned upon him.  A lot of what Stevenson reported arose out of fear and hysteria.  Alabama boasted of being ‘To Kill a Mockingbird Country’, yet replicated all the racial prejudice Harper Lee excoriated.
  • No appreciation of domestic abuse.  Women and sons of abused mothers were found guilty of killing family members and stepfathers, but no account taken of their circumstances or the abuse that had occurred beforehand.
  • Children and young teenagers were being tried under the adult legal system and held in adult jails, where they were liable to be raped.
  • Prisoners who were mentally ill, or had learning difficulties, were tried and convicted, with no account taken of their mental state, or understanding.
  • Conditions on Death Row were inhumane, with prisoners being kept in solitary confinement or in cages, and goaded and provoked by prison staff.
  • There is no humane method for judicial killing.  The electric chair is inefficient, taking several minutes to kill someone by burning.  Apparently, the smell of singed flesh is overpowering.  As doctors are barred from attending executions by their Hippocratic Oath, execution is carried out by prison officers who frequently bungle the job.   The drugs needed for lethal injections are prohibited from sale in the United States and have to be acquired illegally abroad.

Stevenson also wrote about the toll his work had upon him, how he felt when he was unable to prevent a client going to the electric chair and how at one point he nearly gave up.   He told us about his working class upbringing and the solid Christian values instilled into him by his mother, and his grandmother whose own grandparents had been slaves.

However, the end of the book was upbeat, with the number of executions dwindling and state after state stopping using the death penalty.  It was a grim read, and gory in places, but, when it’s all true and happening in our own life time, the reader has to cope with it.  In actual fact, the narrative was readable throughout, balancing failures in one chapter with a more hopeful strain in the next.   I finished the book, full of admiration for Stevenson’s energetic prosecution of justice and his gathering success.  One of his most poignant anecdotes is about how a judge entered an empty court room just before the start of a hearing to find a black man sitting in there by himself.   The judge tries to hustle him out, telling that he must wait for his counsel.  ‘I am the counsel,” Stevenson answered him.

Just Mercy is available from the author’s website.


Review of ‘Home to Cedar Branch’ by Brenda Bevan Remmes

When Katie Devine meets her doctor for sex in his consulting room, they are interuppted by three prurient schoolboys who have climbed a tree to watch, but manage to fall through the skylight.  This is not comedy, however.  Katie’s abusive husband, Hank, murders the doctor in his own home.  Losing her job as school administrator and therefore unable to afford to continue living in her trailer, Katie returns home to Cedar Branch, where she grew up, to live with her brother, Sam.  Hank’s truly evil brother, Ray, pursues her, alleging that Katie harmed her own teenage children and nobbling witnesses who might give evidence against Hank.  The storyline builds to stupendous climax, which lurches from crisis to resolution back to crisis, taking some astounding turns and twists, underpinned by Brenda’s thorough understanding of Quakers and their theology… but I’m not providing a spoiler.

This is Brenda’s second novel, following The Quaker Cafe.  ‘Home to Cedar Branch’ is more ambitious than ‘The Quaker Cafe’, which had overtones of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.   It’s a story about the white underclass, what Eminem called ‘trailer trash’, a sector of society that hasn’t featured in many novels I’ve read.  (I’m being careful here because I’m no expert on American literature.)  The moral compass is very broad, condoning Katie’s affair with her doctor, because she’s in an abusive relationship, and applauding her for suing his estate for professional misconduct.   On the other hand, we have the Quakers’ robust moral tone, especially regarding violence, and their stoic bravery during the crisis at the end.  I don’t think we can really call this Christian fiction.  quaker

‘Home to Cedar Branch’ involves a huge number of characters, some of whom only feature for a few pages, or even a few lines.   It’s the American custom in literature suddenly to plonk a police officer, or a bystander, into the middle of the action, with lots of details about who he is and his everyday life, then abandon them.   Some characters, like the elderly Quaker farmer, Leland Slade, are always there but only take the stage much later.   Others deserved more wordage, like Katie’s daughter, Savannah, a devout Christian who allowed her uncle to insinuate himself into her good graces by implying that her father had turned to Jesus and was innocent anyway.  Her sense of betrayal later on is under-played.  Similarly, Katie’s son, Dusty, who won’t speak to her, indeed won’t come out of his room, is too easily sorted out by good wholesome Sam and Quaker friend Ben.   The Quakers don’t appear until late in the story and this works.  I was disappointed that, out of the major characters in ‘The Quaker Cafe’, Billie had a minor role only, and Liz Hoole, the main character, was omitted altogether, even though her husband and son featured.

Another feature I enjoyed, in both ‘Home to Cedar Branch’ and ‘The Quaker Cafe’, was the way in which the American love of sport, particularly basketball, is incorporated into the lives of the characters.  Very authentic.

Although this is not a literary work, we writers have much to learn from Brenda’s writing technique, particularly her splendid descriptions of characters and their actions, like when Anna, the elderly Quaker, a ‘barrel of a woman… balanced herself by putting a hand on the end of each pew’.  This is where characters come alive.

Great stuff.  Thoroughly recommended.

I cannot find a direct, non-Amazon link to this book, but do take a look at the reviews on Brenda’s website.

By the way,  I’m on the ACW (Association of Christian Writers) More Than Writers blog tomorrow (13 September 2016).  Do drop in.  You don’t have to be an ACW member to comment.

Retired: One Year On…

I retired on Friday, 11 September 2015, that is, almost a year ago.  I’d been with the same further education college, part-time but mostly full-time, for twenty years, teaching IT to 16-19 year olds who thought they knew everything about computers.  And most of their parents believed they did too.  This time last year, I was looking forward to a short holiday in Bruges… and then nothingness.  My beloved aunt in Canada asked me what I was retiring to and I sort of busked it, saying I’d be all right.   It’s been a funny old year, and now is time to take stock.

This is what I’ve done over the year, roughly in date order:

Green TickLooked after beloved grandson for just three weeks, plus a few odd days.  ‘Being there’ for him, as I anticipated, was just not very practical, seeing as he and my daughter live in Sussex.   Also, I’m not very good at playing with toddlers.  I run out of ideas very quickly.

Green TickI’ve become more active in the ACW (Association of Christian Writers).  Tick.   I’m competitions manager.

Green TickI’ve cleared out just one room in our house.  I seriously believed we were going to sort out the whole house, and the attic and the garage…  Well, my husband could do the garage… and the attic.  Reader, he didn’t.  And I didn’t, except that one room, although it included the filing cabinet containing all our papers.

Green TickI did Nano.  I wrote my 50,000 words in November, but, of course, that’s not long enough for a proper novel.  You’ve finished but not finished.  I eventually finished the first draft at the end of February, but editing still needs doing.

Green TickI visited India.

Green TickI found some part-time work.  Tick.  An enormous tick.  And what am I doing?  Teaching IT, but to adults, not to youngsters, which is different, and still time-consuming.

Green TickI’ve done more at church.  I’m secretary of the PCC and have, so far, led two services.  I’m also studying the Course in Christian Studies (which is an Essex thing, a basic course in Christianity and the church).

Green TickI’ve joined a real face-to-face writing group.

Green TickI’ve learned to live on a lower income.  When I retired, my head knew that I would have less money, but my heart didn’t.   If you’re earning a reasonable salary (I never earned mega bucks) and extremely time poor, you spend, just to survive.  In the first six months after retiring, I had to buy two computers (one for my son, who has much less than I  – in fact, I don’t know he survives) and one for myself.  These purchases almost broke me.   This has been the biggest thing for me.  Now I budget like Silas Marner, to the penny.  If, over the last twelve months, I haven’t bought your book, I’m sorry, but that’s the reason.

Green TickI’ve started to learn programming.  They laughed at me at my old college when I said I wanted to do this.  It’s been an ambition since about 2000.  My dear friend, Felicity, will tell you how I attempted Visual Basic in her classes in 2003, but, although I passed City and Guilds Level 2 under her guidance, she found me ‘not a natural’.  Now I’m making slow progress through Python.

Green TickI’ve been on lots of walks.  This is husband-driven and ongoing.


Things I haven’t done:

XI haven’t submitted lots of short stories and have them published, only a few.

XI’ve haven’t sorted out the garden.  Reader, there is some good stuff in there at the moment, like my dahlias, my roses and my tomatoes, but a lot of weeds and nettles too.

XI’ve never had a story accepted by a woman’s magazine.  Although I’ve written several and I’ve, just this last week, finished a nostalgia piece, I’ve not tackled this properly.

XI haven’t redone the church website.   It’s still on the list of things to do.

XI haven’t cleared out the kitchen cupboards.  (They really need it.)

XI’m not doing any regular exercise, eg swimming or keep-fit.  (Ooh, I should’ve added  put on weight in the things I’ve done.)


So, do I recommend retirement?  Yes, on balance, even though I’m still working part-time.  I do believe that part-time is what people in their sixties need.  They’ve still got a lot to give, but they’re not so career-driven and want to do other things than work.