The shortlist for the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction has three books – Sycamore Row by John Grisham, When We Were Brothers by Ronald D. Balson and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. In an exchange of emails with the University of Alabama I learned the winner’s name will be released at the same the Award is presented on August 28, 2014 at the National Book Festival in Washington. As I did last year I have read the shortlist. Unlike last year I have read them before the winner was announced.
For this post I will not try to create suspense. My choice if I were voting for the Prize would be Sycamore Row.
I found myself hesitating for a moment as Grisham has already won the Prize. Certainly the other authors could use the publicity of the Prize far more than Grisham. In the end, I concluded I want to make my decision based on the quality of the books rather than the fame or obscurity of the author.
The criteria for the Prize is that it is awarded each year “to a book length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”.
It was a close decision for me. Both Sycamore Row and When We Were Brothers tackle big themes. Sycamore Row explores continuing racism in rural Mississippi and how the world of the Deep South is gradually changing with regard to race relations. When We Were Brothers examines alleged collaborator complicity in the Holocaust by a prominent Chicago businessman and philanthropist.
The Burgess Boys was out of the running for me. It delves into how a pair of New York City lawyer brothers, the Burgess boys, return to their Maine hometown to help their 19 year old nephew, Zack, who is facing criminal charges for rolling the frozen head of a pig through the local mosque. It was hard for me to see how The Burgess Boys “illuminated” the power of lawyers to effect change. Their primary legal strategy was to prolong the process.
In Sycamore Row lawyer, Jake Brigance, in the late 1980’s takes on the defence of a will providing most of a multi-million dollar estate of a white businessman to his black part-time housekeeper. A court action sees teams of big city lawyers descending on Clanton to challenge the will.
The book provides a classic example of the role in lawyers in society and their power to effect change. Rights and the rule of law are empty phases in our society if there are no lawyers willing to take court actions to uphold rights and apply the rule of law.
Not long before the 1980’s Lettie Lang would have found it difficult to find a competent dedicated lawyer to represent her in what the community perceives as a conflict between whites and blacks.
Jake is bringing change, slowly but steadily, to an area of America still in the process of de-segregation during the 1980’s. Jake is working to convince the white and black populations of Ford County that legal decisions must be made on our Anglo based legal system not on the colour of a litigant’s skin.
In When We Were Brothers, Ben Solomon cannot pursue a war criminal six decades later except with the help of a lawyer willing to fight.
There is no practical way for an individual to take action in court with regard to a war crime. It requires at a minimum a lawyer, more likely a law firm, willing to commit at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in time and expenses with little probability they will be paid.
In the Nuremberg trials the Western world began to use legal structures to respond to war crimes. Where a victor’s justice had previously been exacted with summary trials and swift executions the criminal trials after WW II began the process of conducting fair transparent trials for alleged war criminals.
More recently courts have taken up the challenge in civil actions by ordering financial compensation to victims of war crimes. Solomon is on such a civil quest. Solomon has a compelling story reaching deep into the horrors of the Holocaust.
If only Balson were a little better writer and the dialogue sounded more natural. I found Sycamore Row the better written book.
In my choice I am in a distinct minority among readers of the American Bar Association Journal who voted 903 times as follows with regard to the Award:
- Once We Were Brothers - 603 votes (66.78%)
- Sycamore Row - 205 votes (22.7%)
- The Burgess Boys - 95 votes (10.52%)
I am looking forward later this month to see which book has won the Prize.