Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sleep Toward Heaven

Can a person truly forgive someone who has stolen the most precious thing in her life, someone who has killed the person around whom her entire future was structured? Celia Mills certainly does not believe that she will ever forgive the woman who shot and killed her husband as he ran an errand for her one hot Texas afternoon.

Sleep Toward Heaven, Amanda Eyre Ward’s debut novel is the story of three very different women who find their lives intersecting under tragically unpredictable circumstances. One of the women, Karen, is a Texas death row inmate who has been convicted of killing several of the men who paid to have sex with her along the Texas highways she worked to support her junkie female lover. Another is Franny Wren, a young New York City doctor who has been so affected by the death of her young cancer patient that she is having second thoughts about her career and her marriage plans. The third is Celia, widow of Karen’s last victim, the only man she killed who was not one of her customers, a man who happened to cross paths with her at precisely the wrong moment.

The state of Texas has a long tradition of executing its murderers, something that longtime residents of the state usually take for granted. It is just a fact of life in Texas that many convicted murderers end up in Huntsville where they pay the ultimate price for their crimes. Ward uses Karen, Franny and Celia to put a human face on that experience by alternating segments in which each of the women draws closer and closer to the date that Karen has with her executioner.

Franny Wren never expected to return to a life in small town Texas, and certainly never expected to become a prison doctor working with the female prisoners on death row. But here she was. Karen finds herself looking forward to the relief that death offers. Her life on death row among the handful of female prisoners awaiting their own executions has become miserable and it is only a question of whether she will be executed before she dies from AIDS. Celia, the only character whose story is told in first person narrative, is working hard to convince her mother and friends that she is putting her life back together despite the fact that she is beginning to question her own sanity.

As the clock ticks down and these three women come together one hot Texas August, they touch each other’s lives in ways that will change them forever. Sleep Toward Heaven never becomes preachy or overly sentimental, even to its unexpected ending. Rather, Amanda Eyre Ward allows each reader to decide about the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty for himself. Personally, I am pro-death penalty and I expected Ward to work harder to change my mind than she did. I found instead that the strength of her work is the way that she made me think about all the issues surrounding the death penalty without beating me over the head with them.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. This is such a touch subject. Sometimes I think that life in prison is much worse than death. I know that I don't think of prison as rehabilitation, at least, not in the way most prison systems operate.

    I realize that the story as you describe it deals with the question of the death penalty, but my interest is mainly in the prison system as storage -- and the fact that most criminals are worse when they get out.

    Recently, however, I've been fascinating with the remarkable turn-around of our own Angola, which has gone from one of the worst prisons in the country to a model system within a remarkably short time.

  2. I agree that the death penalty is a very touchy subject, Jenclair. Books like this one remind me that life in prison is probably worse than execution for many murderers. I can't imagine being locked on death row for over a decade waiting for things to play themselves out one way or the other.

    I'm for the death penalty in this state primarily because we don't seem to have anything like a sentence of "life without possibility of parole." For that reason, some animals have been turned back out into the streets to kill again. Sadly, many of them are dumped by the prison system right here in Houston or in Dallas.

    I live just 40 miles or so south of where the death penalties are carried out in Texas, so I suppose that I'm more used to, and accepting of, the whole idea. Nothing I've read has ever changed my mind.

  3. I like what the Harris County DA said years ago: "If you don't like the death penalty, don't commit murder in Texas."

    (Although I am against the death penalty and fully in favor of "in prison until you die.")

  4. Thanks so much for your very thoughtful review of my novel. It's a thrill to log on and see someone considering my work with such intelligence. Hope it's warmer for you ... Austin is freezing these days.

  5. "I found instead that the strength of her work is the way that she made me think about all the issues surrounding the death penalty without beating me over the head with them."

    That's the best kind of writing when it comes to hot-button "issues."

  6. I remember when he said that, factotum...was that Johnny Holmes...can't remember for sure.

    I would prefer sentences of life without parole rather than the death penalty, partly because it seems to be a tougher price to pay than a quick death, and partly because it stops the killing. But until this state has such a sentence, I've got to be content with the death penalty alternative that we do have.

  7. Amanda, thanks so much for taking the time to leave such a nice comment.

    It's been pretty miserable here in Houston for the last few days but today was a big improvement, with a little sunshine and weaker winds. I'm ready for spring now that we've had our week of winter weather.

    BTW, I really enjoyed Forgive Me when I read it earlier this year. Your ending was really fun and I enjoyed the fact that you fooled me right up to the last minute. Great book.

  8. Heather, I totally agree with that. A little subtlety goes a long way in making a point.

  9. This sounds like a very good book and I loved this review. I don't like novels that are preachy.

    Thanks for the review, I think I'm adding this one to my wish list.

  10. I hope you enjoy it, deb, and that it makes you think the way that it did me. It's a really good first novel, IMO.