While I try not to get too political on this blog, I will state now that I am against the death penalty. I don't see how the use of state-sanctioned killing makes us any safer or improves us as a society or a race. I would like to think that if the worst happened and one of my loved ones was murdered, I would be able to stand up for what I believe is right and not give in to the anger or the need for revenge. Why do I bring this up, you ask? Because the death penalty and what it means to the condemned and the families of the victims plays a major role in Sleep Toward Heaven, by Amanda Eyre Ward.
Sleep Toward Heaven is the story of three women-Karen, convicted serial killer; Franny, prison doctor; and Celia, the widow of Karen's final victim. Karen resists human connection, wanting nothing holding her in a world she desperately wants to leave. Her life, from miserable beginning with a drug addicted, abusive mother to horrifying end, has been nothing but fear and pain and hopelessness. Franny, recovering from the loss of a beloved patient and the uncle who raised her, is also afraid of making human connection. Feeling that every human deserves comfort, how can she comfort Karen, knowing she can not save her? Celia desperately wants human connection-but only with the husband that she can never be with. She is stuck in place, unable to move on with her life. It seems that forgiveness is what each is seeking-Karen, forgiveness for her crimes; and Franny, forgiveness for not being able to save her patients. Celia's need is not for forgiveness for herself, but for the courage and strength to forgive Karen, who took so much from her.
The women in this book are fairly well-drawn characters, and I found myself connecting to each of them in different ways. Ward does an excellent job setting the mood with her descriptions of the prison, or the sweltering Texas summer, which adds to the overall feeling of oppression that exists in the book. Each woman is being held back by something-guilt, illness, fear, anger-and their inability to move forward mimics the lethargy of a hot, humid afternoon, when you just want to be still because every movement is such an effort.
The one thing that bothered me about the book, which is pretty well paced and engaging, was the sub-plot of Karen from before she was in prison. She was abused as a child, started prostituting herself at a young age, met a woman who she fell in love with. They lived in a motel, and Karen would pick up johns at rest areas and truck stops to support them. When she started killing, it was partly self-defense and partly to get things for her lover. Does that sound familiar to anyone? If you've seen the movie Monster, about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, then it should. So many of the details were the same it felt a little less like mirroring contemporary culture and a little more like fictionalizing someone's life without so much as a passing reference. Overall I would say this is a decent easy read.