What it’s about: In a dank, decaying prison rife with corruption, a death penalty investigator referred to only as “the lady” tries to save York, a man condemned to death row — even though he insists he wants to die. Other players include a fallen priest who counsels inmates and longs for a closer relationship with the lady, and the narrator, a fellow inmate who has committed an act so heinous he copes by turning everything he sees into a world of dreams and imagination.
Why we love it: The lyrical and redemptive debut novel by Rene Denfeld merges the cold brutality of life behind bars with the magic of fantasy. Her characters are heartbreakingly human and remind us that even in the most dire circumstances, beauty and love exist and can be transcendent.
The inspiration: Denfeld has worked as a death penalty investigator for seven years and often visits inmates on death row. “People can find joy and hope even in the most despairing circumstances. Even if we struggle with terrible traumas or have done unforgivable things, we still want to be seen, heard and loved. The sadness for me is that often this need is never met. The beauty is that it can be.” For Denfeld, her novel represents how people “can escape from horrible circumstances through the power of story, hope and imagination.”
Spark the discussion: Chat points!
1. What would it be like to be incarcerated and facing certain death?
2. The power of imagination.
3. How relying on others gives life meaning.
4. The idea that even the worst of us is worth saving.
About the author
Lives: Portland, Ore.
How she started: “In my 20s I wrote for a tiny newspaper. I was paid $10 for my first article — I hope it’s lost by now!”
Why prison: “Attorneys hire me to investigate death penalty cases to find out what happened — and why. I locate long-ago family members, witnesses and friends. I unearth old records and documents. I help people share their sad and painful memories. Often this evidence is presented in court, to help the judge and jury better understand my client.”
Personal history: Denfeld is the mother of three children, all of whom she adopted from state foster care. “I grew up quite poor and had a difficult childhood myself. I have struggled with wanting acceptance and the fear that I’m not deserving of it.”
Watch the trailer below