In the hours before his 1853 public execution, both the young Dane slated to die and various community members reflect on the nature of the punishment, highlighting the social, ethical, and even economic impacts of such displays.
With only hours left to live, 15-year-old Niels’ final reflections are so strangely calm, so devoid of anger and fear, that readers may at first assume his acceptance signifies guilt. However, the gentle lyricism with which he recalls the love he shared with his father—in spite of their homelessness and desperate fears of workhouse imprisonment—becomes a powerfully stark reminder of the brutality of his current situation. And while readers understand that his role in the sheriff’s son’s death is undeniable, the carefully paced reveals of the specific circumstances leading up to the fatal incident ultimately suggest Niels’ greatest crime might simply have been poverty. Interrupting Niels’ reflections are chapters showcasing the townspeople, who primarily demonstrate condemnation of Niels but also curiosity, occasionally sorrow, and even excitement about the very public spectacle of his gruesome death. These vignettes effectively suggest that the town’s quest for justice and closure has, in reality, turned many citizens into beings far more monstrous than Niels himself. Altogether, it’s an incredibly moving, harrowing, and thought-provoking look at the historical connections between poverty and injustice, made all the more frightening because of the novel’s relevance to current social issues.
Brilliantly devastating. (Historical fiction. 14 & up)