Injustice, inhumanity and death, all made strangely charming and unforgettable.




A well-wrought tale of murder, secrets, lies and state-sponsored and state-botched retribution.

In addition to accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, editions of Louisiana newspapers carried news of the arrest of Willie Francis, a black, stuttering, semi-literate teenager accused of the murder of small-town pharmacist Andrew Thomas. After the detention, trial and conviction, which were riddled with constitutional offenses shocking to a post–Warren Court citizenry, Francis incredibly survived the electric chair, thanks to the malfeasance of his drunken executioners. Was the State of Louisiana legally entitled to attempt the execution again? The unsuccessful battle to save Francis’s life constitutes the heart of King’s story and features three heroes: Bertrand DeBlanc, friend of the victim and grandson of a state Supreme Court justice who fought tirelessly and for little pay; A.P. Tureaud, pioneering NAACP attorney; and J. Skelly Wright, who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and who was destined to become one of the great judges in American history. The informed and reader-friendly discussion of the legal issues and maneuvers attending the Francis appeal, including the intriguing backstage drama at the nation’s highest court, is reason enough to recommend this story, but King’s masterful applications of Bayou State color set this book apart. Ably navigating the bewildering gradations of heritage and race that were so important in postwar Louisiana, he drenches these pages with the lore of the “cursed” Cajun town of St. Martinville, locus of the Thomas murder and terminus of the fictional “Evangeline,” made famous in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem of the same name. King (Woman, Child For Sale: The New Slave Trade in the 21st Century, 2004) expertly juxtaposes the electric chair’s adoption as a supposedly humane alternative to the barbarity of hanging with the grisly experience of the probably guilty young man who finally died in the lap of the killing machine nicknamed “Gruesome Gertie.”

Injustice, inhumanity and death, all made strangely charming and unforgettable.

Pub Date: April 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-465-00265-8

Page Count: 324

Publisher: Basic Civitas

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2008

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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