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Editors Picks Issue 21

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Grace Will Lead Us Home

Jennifer Berry Hawes
(St. Martin’s)

Twelve Christians at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, welcomed a skinny white kid into their Wednesday night Bible study. When they closed their eyes to pray he opened fire, killing nine of them. Only two days later, at his bond hearing, several of their family members publicly forgave the shooter. Like the Amish families after the Nickle Mines school shooting, theirs was an instinctive response by people who had conformed their lives to the mind and heart of Jesus.

This astonishing act of forgiveness was neither easy nor tidy, as this compelling book shows. For one, the families did not speak as one. Many took years to forgive, others told the shooter to burn in hell. Some gradually found healing, others spiraled downward. Two daughters of Ethel Lance, who had been the glue in her fractious family, installed dueling tombstones on her grave. Meanwhile, the flood of donations and media attention led to tensions between the families and the church.

Several family members have written memoirs of their own. Called to Forgive, by Anthony Thompson, whose wife, Myra, led the Bible study that night, is notable for a heartfelt letter to the killer urging him to repent. Sharon Risher, one of the tombstone planters, was furious at her sister for forgiving so quickly at the bond hearing. Only after the killer was sentenced to death was she finally able to forgive, as she recounts in her own book, For Such a Time as This.

Hawes also presents the death sentence as a moment of closure. But nine holes remain in these families all the same. Justice does not make these wounds vanish. Neither does forgiveness, but at least it has given those left behind the power to carry on.

Underland

Robert Macfarlane
(W. W. Norton)

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane (W. W. Norton)

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

What’s below us? That’s the question at the heart of Robert Macfarlane’s new book, Underland, a literary exploration of the earth’s deep and mysterious places: caves, glacial crevasses, the catacombs of Paris, mines, and even the soil of Epping Forest, with its networks of flora, fauna, and fungi. During his explorations, Macfarlane meets people as varied and intriguing as the geographical features that surround them: a British ecologist named Merlin Sheldrake, a Norwegian fisherman, Slovenian peasants, and Parisian cataphiles.

Running through this delightful book like a seam of shale is the theme of humankind’s relationship to nature, and the way we have, since the very dawn of civilization, transformed the features of the landscape. A visit to Greenland’s glaciers, melting more rapidly each year, underscore the urgency of Macfarlane’s ecological concerns. “A ‘glacial pace’ used to mean movement so slow as to be almost static,” he writes. “Today’s glaciers, however, surge, retreat, vanish.” The reader comes away with a keen sense of connection – the ways humans are sustained by the planet, but also the ways we alter it.

Charged

Emily Bazelon
(Random House)

This book, which follows the fates of two young people caught up in the US criminal justice system, could prove to be among the most significant published this year. It doesn’t just illustrate a crucial national problem – it offers a compelling case that it can actually be solved.

America imprisons nine times as many of its people as Germany and seven times as many as France. A primary culprit, Bazelon argues, is the huge discretionary influence wielded by prosecutors, from setting bail to deciding the severity of the charge and what sentence to seek. The poor, held in jail awaiting trial because they can’t pay bail, are far more likely to be convicted and sent to prison, and subsequently more likely to offend again.

But in the disease may lie the cure. Since most district attorneys are elected by the people, Bazelon argues, all we need to do is elect reform-minded prosecutors who believe in the presumption of innocence, second chances, and rehabilitation.

The book tells how this approach is working, from Philadelphia to Chicago to Houston, in red and blue districts alike. This is a cause with bipartisan momentum; conservatives including the Koch brothers and Donald Trump are backing change, recognizing the costs of mass incarceration.

Though two case studies can hardly be adequately representational, Bazelon does well to keep it personal: Noura, a teenager charged with her mother’s murder, and Kevin, who picked up his friend’s gun as cops burst in, clearly face very different district attorneys who hold the keys to their future. And We the People hold the keys to the DA’s office.

The Farmer’s Son

John Connell
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Old ways meet new and the generations work out their tensions all over again in this evocative memoir, as Connell seeks to overcome depression and anger toward his father by returning to the family farm.

Connell doesn’t spare himself or us the pain of these conflicts, chiefly between himself and his father, and between the farmer’s occupation and the writer’s. These climax amidst the beauty of County Longford in the spring, rich in farm life’s daily chores, the triumphs and the defeats and the sheer hard work. You’ll learn about delivering calves and lambs, which is John’s specialty, but also about the love and trust that develop between human and animal on a farm.

In John Connell, Ireland might find its Wendell Berry; The Farmer’s Son was a number one bestseller there. It is probably even more needed in the United Kingdom, and certainly in the United States, where agriculture in general has strayed even further from its pastoral roots. It is a gentle tale, counseling humane treatment of animals and land for the sake of the whole community. Along the way, Connell drops in such fascinating historical details – whoever knew the Nazis bred a fierce wild bull to hunt in a Polish forest after they carried out ethnic cleansing there? – that we half hope the writer’s vocation wins out over the farmer’s. But then what would become of the gentle shepherd.

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