Sunday, February 24, 2013

Genesis of a Novel: The Horrific Death of James Byrd Jr.

James Byrd Jr.
On occasion, an idea for a novel will spring fully formed into my mind. More often, it takes some time and several prompts for an idea to take hold and germinate. 

In the case of AVENGERS OF BLOOD, the tiny seed of an idea came to me when I read about James Byrd Jr.'s brutal killing. It took place in Jasper, Texas on June 7, 1998 and is a shameful part of our state's history.

Byrd was beaten, chained by his ankles to the back of a pickup truck, and then dragged to his death. The coroner believed it took almost three miles to kill him. This was as cold-blooded a murder as you'll come across.

Although Byrd's death caught my attention, what really grabbed me and planted the seed of the idea was his family's reaction. I cannot imagine the hell they must have lived through as they learned the circumstances of his death and sat through the trials of the three men eventually convicted of Byrd's murder.

But instead of responding to his killers with anger, with outrage, they spoke about forgiveness. When the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers held demonstrations in Jasper, Byrd's family called for peace and tolerance. When two of his murderers were sentenced to death, the Byrd family spoke out, asking that their sentences be commuted to life, saying that was punishment enough for them.

I'm a little ashamed to admit that I couldn't get my head around this.

I'm a Christian. I believe in the power of forgiveness, for both the forgiver and the forgiven. The Byrd family has my respect, my admiration for their words and actions. But if what happened to James Byrd Jr. happened to someone that I love? I'm not sure I'd be strong enough to react in the same way, and I can only hope I could muster the courage to try and forgive.

As for the novel, the seed didn't germinate until I was sitting in church one Sunday, bored by a sermon. (Hey, all you preachers, it happens more often than you'd think.) Instead of paying attention, I was leafing through my Bible looking for distraction. And I found it in Numbers 35:20-21 (NIV):

And if he thrust him of hatred, or hurled at him, lying in wait, so that he died, or in enmity smote him with his hand, so that he died; he that smote him shall surely be put to death; he is a murderer: the avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death, when he meeteth him.

Brutal, eh? It's Old Testament, and I like it. This reaction would be more true to who I am than offering forgiveness. (I did say that I'd like to have the courage to forgive, but I'm giving you honesty.)

And there it was. The idea for a story about vengeance for a crime that was so unimaginably horrible, made even more intolerable because justice was denied, that no punishment other than death would do. That led me to the tag line for AVENGERS OF BLOOD:

A horrific triple murder; a crime without punishment; and memories that will not be silenced.

This is not the story of James Byrd Jr.'s killing. No piece of fiction could come close to portraying the nightmare of his death. Instead, it explores the opposite of the Byrd family's courageous reaction to their loved one's murder: the desperate need for resolution, for a price to be exacted in payment for a terrible wrong.

Read AVENGERS OF BLOOD and then tell me: which is closer to your heart? Forgiveness or vengeance?

photo credit: knowhimonline via photopin cc