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Northwest Passages: Naseem Rakha

Pete Springer/OPB

In 1996, then-journalist Naseem Rahka covered the execution of Douglas Franklin Wright. He was the first person to be put to death in Oregon in 34 years. Soon after, Rakha interviewed Sister Helen Prejean, a leading anti-death penalty activist. Rakha told me that Prejean

was so good at planting these seeds, these questions in my mind. What if. What if the victim didn’t want to see the perpetrator hurt. What happens when a family sits through an execution, and the result is not consequential enough. Then I had my son at age 40, then I got sick with cancer, then my mom died. And I decided I was not going to report any more. I wanted to write fiction. I started writing a different story and kept coming back to this one.

The Crying Tree is a complex tale about a boy who is killed, his mother who — after much struggle — forgives his killer, and a secret that twists the family’s every move. The title describes one icon of the mother’s pain: a tree by her son’s grave. This passage from the book is just before his funeral:

At the grave she reached for her daughter, but the girl broke free and took off for the tree. It was a scraggly-looking thing, with a thick trunk and wizened branches holding fanlike tassels of green. A few minutes later, Bliss was back with a small handful of yellow, sap-filled pearls.

“They look like tears,” she said, showing them to her aunt Carol and then her mother. “Like the tree’s crying.”

Irene ran her hand down her child’s arm, then looked away. There are certain things you should never have to see in life. A crying tree standing beside your son’s grave was one.

Rakha says the novel is not intended to take a position about the death penalty. She describes it as one family’s internal struggle to manage a situation as they can. You can learn a bit more about the author on her blog and check out the attention her first novel is getting.

Thanks to harriets on our blog, Robin Beerbower at the Salem Public Library, and Thom Chambliss of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association for suggeesting Rakha. Keep the ideas coming!

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