Note: Book Review Friday is really a “book review some Fridays when I feel like it” kind of thing but if you’re looking for my last recommendation, check out my post about The Year Without A Purchase.
I read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson in April with the Red Couch Book Club. So why do a book recommendation now? Because Stevenson will be on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday this week and our Red Couch Facebook group is all excited, which should tell you something. This is a book that has stuck with a bunch of book nerds for 7 months. I can barely recall what I read last week but I am still pondering Just Mercy. It will take you to the edges of life, break your heart and leave you there to pick up the pieces–but you will be happy for the experience.
Just Mercy is a powerful, heartbreaking look at the prison system in America. That couldn’t sound any more boring. It is about that but not in that textbook, good for you way that goes down like stale bread. it’s really about the people we become, the stories we tell and the mistakes we make. Here are the highlights: (Yes, as if Book Review Friday isn’t sporadic enough as it is, I’m going to just throw out any pretense of writing a real review and go for a list-style summary instead. It’s been that kind of week and I still have an article deadline to meet. Tonight. Good thing I love this stuff!)
1. Stevenson is a real-life Daredevil. Not with the vigilante fighting but with the smart-as-can-be lawyer turning down more prestigious job offers in order to live paycheck to paycheck serving people who have no hope of obtaining competent legal help otherwise.
2. Throughout the book, Stevenson highlights the stories of several people suffering at the hands of a broken justice system. You will not believe what you are reading. Every few chapters I would check the copyright date again because the stories being told are not the stories of a civilized, modern system. The main story is that of Walter McMillan, a respected member of the community who was convicted of a crime he absolutely did not commit–and everyone knew it. In the 20st century, in America, this happens. But not just this. Children tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison, with adults. (Imagine the worst thing that happens in this scenario. You’re almost close to how awful this boy’s story is. I have great big heart-broken tears just writing about it now.)
3. McMillan’s wrongful conviction and the various appeals take place in Monroe County, Alabama, home of To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee. Why does this matter? Because this history is a huge point of pride with the people of Monroe County. They have museums and monuments commemorating the author and her book. They are proud of this heritage, a heritage that seems to stand up against racism and injustice.
I mention this in case you’re tempted, as I was, to read the book and determine that the blatant racism and cruel punishment system are products of a the backwoods South. Here in the Northern/Western/Eastern state, we know better. Not so fast. What Stevenson’s stories warn against, more than anything, is what happens when we fail to see the truth that is in front of us, choosing instead the more comforting version of the story. Fellow Red Coucher and writer Cindy Brandt wrote excellently about that in her article Involving Ourselves in Stories–Of Suffering, Redemption.
Ready for more? Can’t commit to reading the book? Here are your Cliff Note options:
Interview on Fresh Air, (transcript or podcast)