The Crying Tree

Naseem Rakha

Broadway Books/Random House

[Daniel asks] “You ever done that? Forgiven someone even though they don’t deserve it?” …

“No,” Mason said. “No, I’ve never done that.”

“Well, I got to say, it fills you. Whether you want it to or not, that kind of thing, it just fills you. It’s like pain and grace all tied up in one.”

                                        from The Crying Tree


The Crying Tree reflects pain and grace intermingled

Could you forgive the person who killed your child? Would you even want to?

That is the question that Naseem Rakha initially poses in her novel, The Crying Tree. But as the story develops, the question of forgiveness becomes more complicated.

In 1985, Irene and Nate Stanley, recent transplants from Illinois, have a normal family life in eastern Oregon with their two children, thirteen-year old Bliss and fifteen-year old Shep. And then one afternoon Shep is killed in the course of an apparent home robbery.

His murderer is Daniel Robbin, a nineteen-year old who has a troubled past of foster homes and run-ins with the law.

Such tragedies uncover a family’s fault lines, where they are likely to fracture, and we watch the family come apart. Irene sinks into a paralyzing depression for years; she and Nate now simply inhabit a marriage; Bliss grows up on her own, her parents too traumatized by their loss to give her the emotional support she needs. The life they knew has been shattered forever and Irene’s one desire is to see Daniel Robbin executed.

Nineteen years pass and her wish is finally granted. Robbin will no longer appeal his death sentence. But by this time Irene has moved on, if not from her grief, from her need for revenge and Daniel Robbin’s life.

As the execution date approaches, some nagging questions begin to crystallize in the reader’s mind—Why did Nate so abruptly uproot his family from their farm in Illinois to eastern Oregon? What was the tension between father and son? Most unsettling, how do we square the brutal murderer of Shep with the gentle, reflective and remorseful man now in prison?

We get to know Robbin through the eyes of Tab Mason, the penitentiary superintendent and the one responsible for overseeing the execution. As we read on, we sense that something doesn’t ring true.

The book is about forgiveness and redemption, yes, but it’s also about families and the secrets family members keep from each other. As the full story unfolds of what happened the day Shep died, the initial question of forgiveness becomes much broader: Can we finally forgive each other? Can we finally forgive ourselves?

Shakespeare reminds us that mercy is “twice bless’d; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”—which doesn’t mean that it can’t be painful, to give and to receive mercy.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15-October 14, 2010). Reprinted with permission.