Sleep Toward Heaven

by Amanda Eyre Ward

Published by MacAdam/Cage

295 pages, 2003






Live From Death Row

Reviewed by David Abrams


Writing a novel about Death Row is a tricky thing, like walking tightrope on barbed wire.

Pop cult depictions of prisoners awaiting execution often have a hard time balancing pompous pulpit-pounding (as with movies like Dead Man Walking or The Life of David Gale) with the unglossed nitty-gritty (as in HBO's Oz or Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song). We're either awash in pathos or grime. And what about humor? Isn't there a place for a couple of laughs on Death Row?

Amanda Eyre Ward rises to these challenges in her debut novel, Sleep Toward Heaven. Aside from a couple of minor stumbles, the story races from page one to page last at knuckle-whitening speed. She manages to walk the barbed wire without losing balance (wobbling, yes; but never falling). There's even a healthy injection of humor in the book's veins.

Sleep Toward Heaven, which takes its title from a poem by William Stafford, follows three women whose lives eventually converge: Karen, a 29-year-old who's been on Texas' Death Row for five years for a string of murders; Celia, the widow of Karen's last victim; and Franny, a doctor who escapes to Texas from New York, leaving behind her fiancé, an insufferable chauvinist pig. All three women are haunted and riddled with anxiety, fretting over matters large and small as Karen's execution date draws near.

For Franny, it's the decision to dump her shallow, soulless boyfriend and head down to her hometown in Texas where her uncle once volunteered as a prison doctor. For Celia, it's wondering why she's sleeping with a boy half her age whom she met in the post office while mailing a letter to her husband's killer. For that killer, Karen, of course, it's reconciling her dark past with her equally dark future ("The worst part is that everybody is going to watch me go"). We're also introduced to several other women on Death Row, each of them with distinct personalities which avoid falling into the high camp of chicks-behind-bars B movies.

Ward immediately puts us inside the lives of her characters with a rapid-fire voice that keeps the action crackling along, yet is lyric enough to slow down and savor the details -- like these thoughts running through Karen's head:

Things were not always like this for Karen. Her earliest memory is her happiest one. She hopes that death will bring her back to that night, with the smell of her mother's breast: a powdery, caramel smell. The warmth of her mother's hair, ironed on the kitchen table. A car horn honking, a bright moon sky. Her mother whispering a lullaby, soft vowels, papery voice.

Ward also captures the sounds and smells of prison life, including details like how guards remove the sticks from corn dogs before serving them for lunch. She builds credibility at every turn of the page.

And it's not just prison -- there's also authenticity in her scenes of small-town Texas life, like this description of a local café:

On every wall, there were deer heads, and most of them had baseball hats stuck on their antlers. In between the deer heads were sawblades with nature scenes painted on them and large wagon wheels. Also, photographs of men in sunglasses kneeling next to dead deer. In the rare spots where it was visible, the wallpaper was striped. 

Ward is less successful in handling some of her minor characters, especially Franny's fiancé. The superficiality of Nat's character, and the clumsy clichés the author puts in his mouth, stand out like a sore thumb in an otherwise well-developed cast of characters. Fortunately, Nat soon exits the book, stage left, and we're allowed to concentrate fully on the lives of the Death Row women, the widow, and the doctor.

One more thing: let me send up my own personal thanks to heaven that Ward didn't feel compelled to include a clock-ticking finale where everyone stands around waiting for a phone call from the governor. Her climax is suspenseful, but it goes in a different (and more satisfying) direction than the ones we're used to seeing in the movies.

Ward works with a film editor's pace, snipping and cutting quickly between the three women as they each try to piece together lives shattered by violence and disappointment. The result is a novel that reads like lightning, but has the lasting roll of thunder. | April 2003


David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.