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Sleep Toward Heaven
On Wednesday, they begin to get ready for the Satan Killer, who is due to arrive after lunch. They order a lamp and a radio from the commissary, and charge them to Tiffany's account. Karen makes the bed in the empty cell with clean sheets. All the women on Death Row, who had been using the cell as a storage room, have removed their belongings to give the Satan Killer a fresh start.
Lifting the sheet in the air and snapping it tight over the mattress, Karen remembers the pure relief that flooded through her when she first saw her own cell: bare, clean, and smelling of ammonia. It was almost five years ago.
Tiffany takes two books from the bookshelf, Women Who Kill and The Jane Fonda Workout. She puts them by the Satan Killer's bed. "There," she says.
It is four-thirty in the morning. Breakfast is over, and there is the long, pre-lunch stretch ahead of them. Tiffany stands outside the vacant cell, one thin arm around her stomach and the other against her chin. "Should I, like, draw her a picture or something? It looks so sad."
"Leave it alone," says Karen.
"But it looks pathetic," says Tiffany. She shakes her Farrah Fawcett hairdo, and it settles back into place. Underneath her white jumpsuit, her limbs are strong. Tiffany runs in place and does sit-ups and push-ups inside her cell. She takes recess daily, has made a dusty path the shape of the number eight in the small, fenced yard. She believes that she will be set free, and the belief makes her restless. Karen recognizes the sharp hope, like a piece of gravel in a shoe. The knowledge of time, and of missing out. When you let go of the hope, there is a dull, numb peace in its wake.
"Leave it alone," says Karen.
They live in a row, in Mountain View Unit. They share the television and the table bolted to the rectangle of cement in front of their cells. During the day, they are locked into the cage, where they work. Unlike the rest of the prisoners, they are not taught skills for the future. Instead, they make dolls called Parole Pals, which prison employees can special-order, choosing hair color, skin color, an outfit. All afternoon in the cage, the women paint faces on the Parole Pals, and make tiny clothes and shoes. Sometimes, Karen wakes in the night and sees the naked, faceless dolls that hang above the sewing machines. She has to remind herself that they are not babies, and not alive.
♦ ♦ ♦
Veronica agrees with Tiffany. She says, in her low, hoarse voice, "That cell certainly does need something. Something decorative." Veronica has been on Death Row the longest, and has a manner that commands respect, something about the way she holds her shoulders back and peppers her statements with words like "certainly," "absolutely," and "indeed." She is sixty-three years old, and wears her white hair in a bun. Her skin is loose, and she is fleshy, wide at the hips.
She rises from her cot and wraps one of her veined hands around a metal bar. Although they are no longer allowed cigarettes, Veronica has retained a smoker's way of speaking, pausing between statements, a pause that should be punctuated by a deep inhale and elegant exhale of smoke. They wait, and Veronica decrees, "Art."
"Excuse me?" says Karen.
"Art," says Veronica. "Everyone find something or make something. Some sort of art."
"Let her do it herself," says Karen. She points to Veronica's cell. "You don't want someone else's crap on your wall, you know?"
Veronica turns to look at her cell, which is filled with yellowing photographs. She has wedding pictures of herself with all her husbands: Allen, Grady, Bill, Patrick, Stephen, another Bill, Chuck. In the earliest pictures, she is small-boned, engulfed in dresses like cakes, layered and creamy. Over the years, her body grows solid and her wedding dresses become darker and more spare. Patrick is the last husband for whom she wore a veil. Veronica's face goes slack looking at the photographs. She is lost in one of her wedding days, spinning on a dance floor while the band plays "Starlight Melody" and her new husband presses his warm lips to her forehead.
Tiffany jumps in. "I wish you had put something in my cell. It was so horrible, being dragged here and dumped like a bag of garbage!" Her voice goes shrill, indignant. Tiffany insists that she is innocent, that somebody else drowned her daughters, Joanna and Josie. Somebody else took them to the pond behind Tiffany's house and put rocks in the girls' matching sleeping suits. Somebody threw them in, held them under until they drowned, and watched them sink. Their open mouths, throats filled with water. Eyes open to stinging darkness. In Tiffany's cell, she has twenty-six shades of nail polish, lined up in a gleaming row.
Karen tries not to roll her eyes. Jackie looks up from her sewing. "What about one of my quilts?" she says. "It would add some color, anyway." She brushes her hair from her freckled forehead with a quick motion, and something in her jaw snaps. Jackie is filled with mean energy. She moves fast, talks fast, has bony elbows and knees. To keep her hands moving, she sews: quilts, pillows, the dress she will be executed in. The dress is red, with sequins she orders from a catalog.
They will only let her have one dull needle, so her sewing goes pretty slowly. Although "Mountain View Quilts" seemed like a good idea for a business, Jackie has only sold one through the Web site her sister maintains. Jackie used to be a hairdresser, and likes to do everyone's hair. Obviously, she can't cut anything, but she brushes it around and sprays hairspray. Also, she does Tiffany's nails. She is due to be executed in a month ...Sleep Toward Heaven
A Novel. Copyright © by Amanda Ward. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Reading Group Guide
In Gatestown, Texas, 29-year-old Karen Lowens, dubbed the "Highway Honey," awaits her execution and bides her time in the company of a host of convicted serial murderers, all of whom cling to a final hope of absolution. In Manhattan, Dr. Franny Wren, also 29, resists the urge to escape from her carefully crafted but suffocating life. She begins to rediscover herself through the lens of her past as she revisits her Gatestown roots to bury the uncle who raised her. In Austin, Texas, a day's drive from Gatestown, Celia Mills, a once sublimely happy and vibrant young librarian, clutches on to the essence of her slain husband as she struggles to continue a life without him, to reclaim her hallmark brio, and to foster her will to live a normal life. In the backdrop of this fictional Texas town, peppered with oddball natives who are often deluged by media obsessed with ideology and death penalty rhetoric, Ward puts faces to people who are as funny as they are morbid -- people who deal with overwhelming issues in daily doses.
Sleep Toward Heaven's primary thematic concerns -- the sanctity of life, the responsibility of family to nurture, loyalty, and betrayal among friends, the doctor/patient relationship, tenderness in unexpected places -- are finessed into an impressive portrait of these women's disparate lives as they are similarly touched by violence, loss, and self-destructiveness -- and connected by a murder spree that can only end in state-sanctioned execution.
- Karen Lowens is a hardcore drug addict, a prostitute, a thief, and a serial murderer. What is her attitudetoward her victims and the families who survive them? Is she remorseful and is remorse necessary to redeem a life gone wrong? In other words, is the sanctity of Karen's life devalued by her crimes?
- Under different circumstances, abandonment is an issue for Celia, Karen, Franny, and Janis, Mountain View's warden. How does each of these women deal with having been discarded -- by society as a whole or, in various ways, by people to whom they had personal connections?
- Are the women on Death Row connected to each other on an emotional level? Having failed to function in normal society, what kinds of relationships are they capable of? Behind prison walls, why do some of the guilty women hold out hope for freedom and a second chance?
- "Karen will ask for only one thing on her last day, a peach. She thinks about it sometimes, the way the ripe flesh will give, spilling juice on her tongue. The first bite of a sweet peach: this is the closest Karen will come to love." What does Karen's imagined, ripe fruit symbolize? Can this metaphor be extended to other characters, including Franny, Janice, Celia, Rick and the women on Death Row -- Tiffany, Sharleen, and Veronica? How does Ward use common objects to intensify her characters' experiences and to bring her readers into the moment?
- This novel's structure is complicated: it is divided by month over the course of a summer as well as distinguished by its three main characters. Franny and Karen are presented in an omniscient voice but Celia is told primarily in first person. What effect was Amanda Eyre Ward trying to achieve with this structure? Did their voices, in their variations, affect your sympathy or attachment to any of the characters -- and how so?
- Does Celia have survivor's guilt? Does she blame herself for Henry's tragic death? Does she believe she deserves real happiness? How does she inhibit her own healing? Do any of the characters in Sleep Toward Heaven feel they deserve happiness or contentment?
- What is the role of love in this novel? How does each of the women on Death Row, as well as Celia, Franny, and Nat, define love -- is it finite? How do they recognize it? How do they express and receive love and how does this affect their individual feelings of identity and wholeness? Does love, as a concept and in practice, change throughout the novel?
- How does Celia cope with a life without Henry? How does she fill her time and what comes to be most important to her after his death? What has she learned from his death? What does her magenta bikini signify -- is it an indicator of progress or is it just a magenta bikini? What is Franny's "magenta bikini?"
- How does Franny mourn the deaths of Anna and of Uncle Jack? How do her actions compare to the emotional aftermath of her broken engagement to Nat? Why does she establish a relationship and begin to care for Karen when, inevitably, Karen will be executed by the end of the summer? Is Franny's insistence on providing Karen proper treatment for her HIV-related illnesses and infections a marker of Franny's altruism or is she selfishly motivated? Similarly, is Celia's final scene with Karen an act of altruism and forgiveness or is Celia acting on and for her own behalf?
- How did you interpret Celia's final revelation to Karen? Did you see it as a miscarriage of justice, an act of mercy, or something altogether different? Knowing what she does, why do you think Celia decides to attend the execution with her mother and Henry's family? What role does Henry play in her decision to intervene?
About the Author
Amanda Eyre Ward was born in New York City and graduated from Williams College and the University of Montana. Her short stories have been published in Story Quarterly, Mississippi Review, New Delta Review, Salon.com, and Austin Chronicle. Ward is a regular contributor to the Austin Chronicle. This is her first novel.