May 20, 2007

"Dead Man Walking"

by Sister Helen Prejean (Vintage Books)

Sister Helen Prejean's book can be considered only as an argument against capital punishment, and on those terms the book has merit for presenting that case passionately and backing its sentiments up with solid data about our criminal justice system. Then, one's feelings about the book are likely to be swayed by one's opinion about that particular issue.

There is much more to this book, however. It addresses themes far wider than our national debate on executions. Sister Helen Prejean has written a gutsy account of lessons she has learned in ministry -- of plunging into unknown territory as a nun, of facing aspects of humanity that confuse her, frighten her, frustrate her -- and persisting in offering her Christ's forgiveness and love to every customer.

Her decision, for instance, to face the families of the victims of homicide, not to convert them but to listen to anything they offer and accept instruction from them, is courageous and moving.

The book will not last because of its political position or because of any special literary merit; it will, I think, survive as a spiritual memoir and, perhaps, as a compelling argument for seeing even our worst offenders as human beings rather than monsters.

The thing that will stay with me about this book is the spare, unflinching, hypnotic tone of the writing. Helen Prejean has a writing style that will not let the reader look away. This is just as true when she is writing lists of facts as it is when she is recounting her personal odyssey. No matter which side of this debate one personally comes down on, her strength as a person is impossible to negate. She is painfully honest, revealing her own human fears and concerns, and recounting her growth as she acknowledges and faces them.

This is a book that is hard to leave and will be difficult to forget.

Reprinted by permission of the author and the Watkins/Loomis Agency

Excerpt from Book