Rabbit Reads: Just Mercy

By

You know we love our books at The Rabbit Room, so here’s a little help finding your next favorite. Welcome to Rabbit Reads, a new weekly series where we offer a recommendation from our overflowing shelves and open the floor for discussion. Anything can show up here: old and new, novels and memoirs, comics and kid lit. We just promise it’s something worth your time. Let’s get started with a book that’s been on our radar for months…

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau, 2014)
Memoirs / Law / Social Justice

Why We Love It: “Ms. Parks leaned back, smiling. ‘Ooooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.’ … Then Ms. Carr leaned forward and put her finger in my face and talked to me just like my grandmother used to talk to me. She said, ‘That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.’”

I don’t know how to begin talking about Just Mercy. Sometimes I could barely make it through a chapter because I needed to stop and let anger and grief do its work. Sometimes, I flew through the pages, spurred on by glimpses of hope. Bryan Stevenson’s dedication to living out justice and mercy through his vocation is inspiring, and his memoir gives us a front row seat to corruption and healing, fear and hope.

Stevenson, a Harvard Law School graduate and founder of Equal Justice Initiative, has dedicated his life to advocating for the forgotten in American prisons. He’s argued multiple cases before the Supreme Court, defended the wrongfully convicted, and spent over 30 years challenging racial and economic inequities in the U.S. justice system. But the beating heart of the story is one of his early clients, Walter McMillan, an African-American man wrongfully convicted of a young, white girl’s murder in Monroeville, AL. (The irony that this takes place in Harper Lee’s hometown is not ignored.)

Stevenson retraces Walter’s story in riveting, readable prose — the bizarre circumstances that led him to death row, the evidence for his innocence, and the six year journey to his exoneration. The story feels too crazy to be true, but it is, and interspersed throughout are stories of other clients — mentally disabled adults, poverty stricken families, and neglected and abused children serving time in horrible, adult prison conditions. Statistics and evidence abound (it is a lawyer’s story, after all), but the particular people, their names and stories, compel us to see the humanity we share.

It hurts to read a story like this. Behind the author’s compassion for broken people, a rage burns against a broken system. Instead of murderers and thieves, he presents humans with resilience, concerns, families, a sense of humor. And though fear and prejudice is on full display, he shows us beautiful moments of healing— a racist prison guard broken by empathy, a couple who chooses to love a child convict.

And there is the beauty, a hint of light through the iron bars.

Go Deeper: Since its 2014 release, so much conversation has surrounded this book. Here’s the author’s popular TED Talk “We Need to Talk about an Injustice.” It gives a good 22 minute backstory to issues discussed more deeply in the book.

Have you read Just Mercy? Feel free to discuss your thoughts in the comments.


 

[Just Mercy is available here in the Rabbit Room Store.]

Jen was born and raised in central Florida, but now lives in the strange land of southern New England. Her words have appeared in TS Poetry’s Every Day Poems, CCM Magazine, and other publications, and she recently released her first poetry collection Ruins & Kingdoms. Some of her favorite things include used bookstores, good coffee, messing about in the kitchen, and local adventures with her husband Chris.


10 Comments

  1. Debbie S

    I am almost finished reading it and agree with all you said. sometimes I had to put it down because the injustice made me so mad. what a valuable look into not only the broken justice system, but a look into the lives of young broken people placed into horrendous situations. May we all gain some insight and mercy.

  2. Sarah Geil

     I finished this book just hours before you posted. It has been selected as Georgia State University’s First-Year book that all incoming students will be required to read. For me, this means I get to teach it to an English 1101 class in a few weeks. 

    Through the first half of the book, I was wary of teaching it. This will be my first experience teaching, and the topics of punishment, racial inequality, and brutality are definitely not ones I would choose to discuss in the first few weeks. Talking about a thesis statement and good argument seems much easier to manage if we’re arguing that one genre of movies is better than another (though admittedly less effective).

    By the middle of the book, I was hooked. The stories were starting to move me, and I forgot that this was a book I was required to read and figure out how to teach. By the last few chapters, I found myself underlining far too many sentences for my annotations to be effective. I excitedly circled the name “Thomas Merton” three times (pg 289). I closed the book, but the message remained very close to my thoughts as I sorted through the opinions, sadness, anger, and questions the book conjured.  

     

    When thinking about teaching it, feelings of excitement were starting to spring up beside the anxiety. Then, I saw this post. I shouldn’t need confirmation that a book such as this is good, but I did. It caught me off guard. Like you said, it hurt. It took longer to read than usual, and even as it ended, I couldn’t describe it as a book that I enjoyed even though I had decided that it was a worthy read.  As I read through your words, Jen, the excitement finally pushed away the excitement.  Even though I’ve not yet figured out how to discuss and assess this book in English 1101, with students in their very first days of college, I know it is an important privilege. 

  3. Laura Preston

    Bryan Stevenson was the commencement speaker at my daughter’s college graduation last year.  After hearing him, I immediately ordered the book and found it to be one of the most worthwhile books I’ve read in a good long while.  I’m glad to hear you’ll be discussing it with students, Sarah.  It woke me up to my own ignorance and insensitivity.

  4. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Sarah, I’ve been trying to come up with a good response, but maybe the most I can say is glad this was helpful for you! Great timing. 🙂 I can imagine this is a tough book to teach right away, but I think it’ll be a great read for your students and (hopefully!) will spark rich conversation. There’s so much to talk about… justice, race, class, humanity. Probably the thing I loved most about his writing was the way he honors the humanity of his clients. Not ignoring what wrong they may (or may not) have done, but showing the readers what we all have in common. It’s beautiful. Hope your classes go well!

  5. Rebekah

    I read this book a few months back after hearing discussed on the Reading Writers podcast. What an important, heartbreaking book. I grew up hoping that racism was in America’s past and am in the throes of learning how broken our world truly is. Just Mercy is a hard book but it is well worth the struggle.

  6. Jesse Blocher

    @jblocher

    Excellent book. If you want to keep going on the theme of racism and institutional sin/evil, I recommend:

    America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis

    The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

    The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

    The theme of anger (and perhaps helplessness) will continue. My wife and I are working through a lot of this right now to see what God is calling us to do, because the current situation cannot remain.

     

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *