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Defending Jacob coverThis week’s haunting book is the story of a family in turmoil. The protagonist is Andy Barber, a prosecuting attorney whose teenage son Jacob is arrested for murdering a classmate. Did Jacob kill the other boy or not? The reader is left wondering throughout the book.

Andy’s instant reaction is to defend his son, and he loses friends, career, and family as he does so. He also must face his own childhood demons, which may or may not have bearing on the accusations against Jacob.

Defending Jacob is a good crime story, a strong courtroom procedural that will satisfy lawyers and non-lawyers alike in its accuracy. But the book is far more than a procedural. It asks haunting questions about family and parenting, about love and responsibility, about justice and truth.

Here are some of the questions I asked myself as I read:

    • Are children the reflection of their parents?
    • How much of a child’s personality is nature and how much is nurture?
    • Should a parent believe in his or her child simply because he or she is your child?
    • What do you do if you suspect something is terribly wrong with your child?
    • If something is wrong with your child, how much of it is your fault?
    • How do parents deal with conflict between themselves in how to deal with a child?
    • Do you help your child at the expense of your spouse?

What parent has not asked those questions at some point? Though when most of us confront these issues, we are not dealing with life and death situations or with crimes that shock a community and jolt us out of our complacency. In Defending Jacob the stakes are high indeed for Andy and his wife Laurie as they deal with the accusations against their son.

The prose in Defending Jacob is often beautiful and haunting in itself, as in this statement the protagonist makes about his wife:

“The epiphany I had looking at Laurie’s notebook was not that she was smart but that she was unknowable. She was every bit as complex as I was. . . . She would always be a mystery, as all other people are. . . . It is a childish realization, I admit—no one worth knowing can be quite known, no one worth possessing can be quite possessed—but after all, we were children.”
 

And this statement about his son:

“Every father knows the disconcerting moment when you see your child as a weird, distorted double of yourself. It is as if for a moment your identities overlap. You see an idea, a conception of your boyish inner self, stand right up in front of you, made real and flesh. He is you and not you, familiar and strange. He is you restarted, rewound; at the same time he is as foreign and unknowable as any other person.”
 

We all ask, as William Landry does in this novel, who among us can really know another, even a beloved spouse or child?

SPOILER ALERT – THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN DEFENDING JACOB.

As the novel proceeds, we see Andy’s certainty that his son is innocent tested and retested. His wife has her doubts as well. Their differences in how they deal with the accusations against their son are at the heart of the novel. They both react as parents, but they also react based on their knowledge and lack of knowledge of the criminal justice system.

Andy uses his knowledge of the legal system to exonerate Jacob. The evidence points both ways. Jacob might be guilty, no matter what his father believes. And yet, as a father and as an attorney, Andy must do everything he can to see that all exculpatory evidence is made available. He tries to reconcile his duties to the court and to justice and truth while still believing in his son, but he gets far more involved in the investigation than he should. In the end, he loses his job because of the actions he takes to defend his son—as a parent, if not as an attorney. Does he do the right thing? Lay readers and lawyers alike can debate this question.

Laurie hides a knife found in Jacob’s room, without understanding the impact that could have on the legal case. She has more doubts about Jacob’s innocence than Andy does, but reacts to protect her son in the only way she knows how. Does she do the right thing? Parents everywhere can debate this question.

As the legal case proceeds, Andy’s family disintegrates. They are spurned in the community—Jacob is thought guilty by others, including the dead boy’s family, if not by his father.

What would you have done?

Throughout the pretrial proceedings and then the trial, the family must put on a public front, while their lives are spinning out of control and into hell. Their home is vandalized. The media attack them in front of the courthouse. They cannot go out to the grocery store, nor to restaurants. They eat home-delivered pizza and Chinese food and try to ignore the legal morass that engulfs them.

What would you have done?

Ultimately, Jacob is exonerated, but not as a result of the trial, and some doubt remains about his guilt. Nevertheless, this poor family must put their lives back together again. They head out for a Caribbean vacation. On this vacation, another child whom Jacob has befriended dies. Could Jacob have been responsible? Once again, Andy and his wife Laurie deal with the possibilities differently. I won’t give away the ultimate plot twist. But it, too, is horrendous, and Andy must deal with the fallout alone.

What would you have done?

In the notes at the end of Defending Jacob, author William Landry says about the book:

“To me, it is about an ordinary couple face with the possibility that something has gone horribly wrong with their child. It is a storyteller’s way of wondering: what would you do … if?”
 

And that is a haunting question:

What would you do . . . if?

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