Bonus Blink Book Review: “Grace Will Lead Us Home” by Jennifer Berry Hawes
By Reba Campbell
Rarely does a book appeal to all my “reading” senses – beautifully written, important message, compelling story and human connections. “Grace Will Lead Us Home” about the shootings at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church is one of them.
Jennifer Berry Hawes wrote the book while a reporter for the Post and Courier and witnessed first-hand many of the details surrounding this tragedy. Currently she writes for ProPublica.
When I read writing by an author whose work really grabs me, I like to mark up the pages and go back and read those favorite lines over and over. This book is dog-eared with turned-down pages, numerous bookmarks and notes scribbled in the margins.
For anyone who thinks they have an understanding of the circumstances, the emotions, the complexities or the passions surrounding the shooting, the trial and its aftershocks, this book illustrates there’s far more to this story than just an accounting of events in a series of news reports.
I was fully expecting this book to be written in the style of a reporter – all facts, little emotion, neutral descriptions that would pass a newspaper editor’s muster. That’s not the case at all. The best way I can describe the book is the intersection of excellent journalism and passionate, purposeful storytelling. I later learned that Hawes had won a Pulitzer Prize, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at the elegance of her writing in this book.
What I discovered before I finished even the first two pages was a beautifully written story about an unimaginable human tragedy that affected people in ways we can’t possibly understand without being part of the story. That’s where Hawes’ writing comes in.
She doesn’t just tell the story – she gently carries us there with a respectful, yet deeply insightful, narrative. She masterfully weaves together the lives and stories of the many people involved, while at the same time balances the issue of race relations that always simmers just below the surface.
There’s a sense of chronology in the way Hawes tells the story. However, the narrative doesn’t always run in order of what happened, which could make the book confusing if the writer had less finesse in the art of storytelling.
I particularly loved her account of Gov. Haley’s visit with Felicia Sanders, one of the survivors. Hawes vividly describes the emotion of the occasion merging perspectives of everyone who was present. I felt I was sitting in the room with them as a respectful observer rather than a voyeur or third-party reader of a news story.
Hawes describes without judgment, yet with more than just a reporter’s detachment, how the church leaders at Emmanuel AME Church failed the survivors and victims’ families in several ways. Her descriptions are accurate and human-focused without being sappy or judgmental.
Hawes’ descriptions of the shooter’s family are humane but not accusatory. She digs into questions that anyone who had read anything about the shooter and his background would want to know. Yet she doesn’t sensationalize or hyperfocus on this part of the story.
Hawes breaks down the complexities of the “forgiveness narrative” that started shortly after the shooting when several of the victims’ families made public statements offering forgiveness to the shooter. A reader can understand the individual stories of grace from various families’ “forgiveness narratives” to get past what Hawes called the “homogenous” descriptions that spread through the media.
There were a couple of things l learned from listening to an interview with Gavin Jackson on SC Public Radio’s “The South Carolina Lede” before I read the book that made the story feel even more real and human than it would had I listened after reading it.
First was Hawes talking about her own personal connection to the story and how it impacted her family. One of these connections was the fact that her son’s school was across the street from Mother Emmanuel. In the podcast interview, she talked about personal “out of the blue” moments that grabbed her. One example was leaving her son at school and becoming overwhelmed with worry that something would happen – a worry that wouldn’t have crossed her mind before the shootings.
Second was how she described the history of race relations in South Carolina. On a personal level, I found the history lessons intertwined throughout the book forced me to examine my personal perspective on race. In the 1970s, I was in elementary, middle, and high school living in a world pretty well insulated from the racial conflicts of school desegregation taking place around me. At that point, I didn’t fully understand that we were smack dab in the middle of an era that was shaping our state’s future. Hawes’ history lessons overlaid throughout the book helped me better understand my own perspectives and the state of race relations today.
This book is a rare convergence of straightforward reporting and empathetic storytelling that fully held my attention – twice. It will make you think, cry, examine your own biases and feel more empathy for your fellow humans.
In 2022, Reba Campbell set out to get off the screens and back to books for the summer. She set a goal of reading a book a week. Her accountability was writing short Blink Book Reviews (so short you can read them in a blink). John Reba’s Blink Book Review FB group to follow along for the 2023 summer series. Reba can be reached at email@example.com.
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