It’s not every day that my hometown makes a cameo appearance in a best-selling novel. But East Texas provides the setting for John Grisham’s latest installment, The Confession–a novel that takes on both the death penalty itself and the culture that allows it to thrive in many parts of our country.
Grisham gets a lot right in this novel. I could dither about a few details–for example there is no term limit for the Texas governorship, a fact unfortunately recently demonstrated by the re-election of Rick Perry to a third term–but he captures to feel of the place, especially the area of the state one of my high school friends describes as “behind the pine curtain.”
The trees stretch tall and the rolling hills surprise visitors expecting a scene ripped from all those Westerns, but the beauty of East Texas masks an ugly tension lying only marginally below the surface. Having spent twenty years of my life there, my stomach clenched when I read the dialogue Grisham wrote for scenes when a young black man found himself wrongly accused of murdering a white girl and later when he related the white community’s response to the outrage coming from the black side of town.
And, of course, there’s a black side of town in Grisham’s fictional Slone, Texas. One scene in the book, in fact, has a shotgun totting white homeowner warning a group of black teenagers to get back to “where they belong.”
Belonging. Who belongs and who doesn’t? Court-ordered school integration came slowly to our part of the state, happening only a few years before I started school in the early 1970s. After that, black and white students (at least those whose families didn’t flee to smaller, whiter, districts) attended school together, played on sports teams together, sweated together through summer marching band practices. But in many ways the chasm between “our” side or town and “their” side of town remained. We danced together, albeit on opposite sides of the gym, at high school homecoming events but then adjourned to our separate invitation-only after parties.
To their credit, though my parents never took a stand regarding segregated social events, they vehemently opposed the death penalty, in both principle and because of the unjust racial distribution found in any look at the death row population in Texas. My father, an attorney, shared his concerns about the justice system and the unequal representation poor, and especially minority, defendants in our state. With that kind of childhood dinner table conversation in my history, it’s not surprising that I found myself cheering the efforts of the crusading defense attorney in The Confession and holding my breath as the clock ticked down toward the scheduled execution of an innocent man.
Read Grisham’s latest novel for an installment of the fast-paced legal suspense he made his career on. But more importantly, read it to understand the importance of convening a national conversation about the death penalty. Because Grisham’s novel may be fiction, but unfortunately in Texas it falls much too close to reality.