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BOOK REVIEW : Singing a Dirge of an Unjust Punishment : THE CHOIRING OF THE TREES by Donald Harington , Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $22.95, 347 pages

April 26, 1991|JUDITH FREEMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ever since 1977, when convicted murderer Gary Gilmore uttered the words, "Let's do it," thus confronting his executioners at Utah State Prison with his unflinching willingness to face a firing squad, capital punishment--briefly banished in this country during the 1970s--has been restored to an America deeply divided over the moral questions it raises.

Is it a "relic of mankind's slow, painful rise out of the dark ages," as one character in Donald Harington's new novel suggests, or biblical justice, the reflection of an eternally vengeful side of human nature?

However one answers that question, the possibility of an innocent person being wrongly condemned to execution always has been one of the strongest arguments against capital punishment.

"The Choiring of the Trees," Harington's seventh novel, is based on the true story of one such person, Nail Chism, a simple mountain man from Arkansas who in 1915 was unjustly convicted of raping a 13-year-old village girl and condemned to die. It's also the story of his relationship with a woman who believed in his innocence and fought to save his life.

Set in the Ozarks where all Harington's fiction occurs, the story portrays a backwoods South just after the turn of the century. Stay More, Ark., is a place where incest is common and few girls keep their virginity beyond the age of 12, a poor place, and a mean one. Ignorance and corruption are the norms. Life is a mixture of superstition and struggle in the greening hollows, where people have never known anything different.

Backwoods Arkansas in 1915 may be "a barnyard full of rustic buffoons," as someone in the novel suggests, yet within the ranks of these mountain people are the good and innocent souls like Nail Chism, positioned to reflect wisely on the dark side of our natures.

At first glance, Nail Chism seems an unlikely hero. He's a man acutely connected to the land and this is his greatest strength. He knows plants, understands seasons. Born into a family of moonshiners, he chooses sheepherding over the still, and is content to spend his days in high meadows listening to the "choiring" of the trees around him. But he runs afoul of the local law one day and angers his brother-in-law, Sull Jerram, an amoral county judge who takes revenge and frames Nail for the rape of 13-year-old Dorinda Whitter. Nail is tried, convicted and sent to The Walls, a hellhole of a prison in Little Rock, to await execution.

Among those sent to witness Nail's death in the electric chair is an artist named Viridis Monday, who has been commissioned by a Little Rock newspaper to sketch the condemned man. Worldly and well-traveled, Viridis has been to Paris, where she studied art and met Picasso and Gertrude Stein before returning to her native Little Rock.

When Nail is saved by a technicality (there aren't enough witnesses for the execution), he is given a temporary reprieve, and Viridis is given a cause. Convinced Nail is innocent, she begins a campaign to get Gov. George W. Hayes to pardon him or order a new trial.

But justice is not only blind, it's obtuse and corrupt as well. Not even Dorinda Whitter's confession that she had lied in naming Nail as her rapist can save him from such a warped legal system. Without giving away too much of the plot, it takes several stays of execution, and a remarkable resolve on the part of Viridis Monday to see justice finally done.

Human beings come to consciousness at the edge of things, when forced to occupy the outer margins of suffering and loss. Nail Chism's story is a forceful condemnation of a brutalizing prison system and a corrupt world of good-old-boy politics.

Life inside The Walls, where prisoners are fed slop, flogged until their skin shreds and isolated in dark cells, suggests the lowest depths of civilization.

"The Choiring of the Trees" is filled with suspense and a fine sense of time and place. But it suffers from mild quirks. There's a curious use of "off" and "on" to designate every chapter (is that the juice from "Old Sparky," the electric chair, flowing through the tale?), and it isn't always clear who's telling this story.

Harington has chosen to make the main narrator the best friend of the child who was raped, a minor character named Latha Bourne, who is best at catching the real life of the Ozarks.

It's when writing about Stay More--those verdant dells, the very land--that Harington shows his greatest strengths. The story begins to sing, like the trees of the title.

Next: Carolyn See reviews "Worlds Beyond My Control" by Jane Lazarre (Dutton).

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