"THE CRYING TREE" by Naseem Rakha, Broadway, 368 pages, $22.95

The death penalty: Either you're for it or against it. Or so you'd like to think.

In "The Crying Tree," author Naseem Rakha explores the path of one family as they learn nothing is as cut and dried as they think.

The Stanley family — parents Irene and Nate and children Bliss and Shep — have always been happy in their southern Illinois home, so it comes as a surprise when Nate decides to take a job as a deputy sheriff in the tiny town of Blaine, Ore.

The only one who seems sure about the move is Nate, but in time, the family starts to feel comfortable in the high desert. That new life, however, crumbles to pieces when Irene receives devastating news.

While stocking shelves at the local grocery store, Irene gets a cryptic call to hurry home. She arrives to find the house surrounded by squad cars and her husband covered in blood. The blood isn't Nate's, it's that of their 15-year-old son, who has been beaten and shot to death in their home.

A 19-year-old troublemaker, Daniel Robbins, is arrested, convicted and sentenced to die, but that brings little comfort to the family. As the years pass, each member of the Stanley family learns to cope with ongoing court appeals and the loss of Shep in their own way. Nate retreats into himself, Irene finds comfort in a bottle and their teenage daughter, Bliss, is left to fend for herself.

Grief, anguish and hatred consume Irene. Shep was her life, and without him, she doesn't want to go on. Only when she hits rock bottom and decides to write a letter to Shep's killer does she find some relief. What she doesn't expect, though, is for Daniel to write back. The two begin a secret correspondence, forming a bond that acts as a salve to both of them.

Nineteen years after Shep's death, Daniel's execution date is finally set. As the day approaches, Irene finds herself conflicted. She's spent the past nine years writing to Daniel and has come to see him in a different light: She begins to see him as human.

As Irene races to save her son's killer, secrets of the past come tumbling out, threatening to destroy what's left of the already fragile Stanley family.

"The Crying Tree" is hauntingly beautiful and sad as Rakha examines themes of hate, forgiveness, redemption, acceptance and love. Here, Rakha brings hard questions for which there are no black-and-white answers to the fore. Readers are forced to question their own beliefs as Rakha's characters delve into their own.

Though Rakha's prose is accessible and pacing comfortable, "The Crying Tree" is not an easy read. The heart-wrenching topics here will anger some, soothe others and leave many pondering for days.

Sensitivity rating: occasional use of strong language, sexual content

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com