The Bookworm: From death row to the final frontier

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row”

By Anthony Ray Hardin with Lara Love Hardin

c. 2018, St. Martin’s Press

$25.99, $34.99 Canada; 255 pages

You always keep your eyes on the prize. You’ve given yourself no other options and your steadfastness is your compass. What you believe will happen. What you know is truth. Say it enough, and everybody else will know, too – especially when, as in the new book “The Sun Does Shine” by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin, the truth is one of innocence.

“The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row” author Anthony Ray Hardin.

On a night in the summer of 1985, 29-year-old Ray Hinton checked in with the security guard at his workplace, just as he’d been told to always do. He hadn’t been at the job long, but that had become his routine every night before getting assignments for his shift, doing work he liked.

Reaching that point hadn’t been easy.

The youngest of ten children, Hinton was his mother’s “baby” and he continued to live with her after high school; though he’d thought about college, there was no money or scholarship for it. Instead, he found work at an Alabama coal mine, hating the work, loving the paycheck, still wanting what he couldn’t afford.

 “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row”

He took a car he never paid for, and it cost him a few months in jail.

By that evening in the summer of 1985, though, Hinton had resolved to make his mama proud. He was again employed, sober, living on the straight-and-narrow, had checked in with the guard as he was told, and worked until it was time to go home.

And that was where he was arrested five days later, accused of a robbery and murder committed while he was at work, miles from the crime scene. His trial was short. The jury was all-white, as were the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and a ballistics “expert” that was no expert. During the trial, Hinton “knew” he’d be convicted, knew it in his heart, even though he clearly had an alibi.

He was innocent. And he was sent to Death Row.

Because there’s a book about this, you’ve probably already figured out that author Anthony Ray Hardin is a free man now. You already know of his innocence. The shocker is that that took 30 years for exoneration, and when you read “The Sun Does Shine” (with Lara Love Hardin), be prepared to be shocked some more.

Or maybe you won’t be: at times, Hardin himself seems to expect many of the things that happened to him, which leads to a whole host of emotions for a reader. You shouldn’t, in fact, be at all surprised to feel frustration, sadness, white-hot anger, and crushing despair – sometimes, from the same page. And yet, despite that you’ll cringe inside, Hardin also makes readers’ souls soar with words that reveal small beauties between horrors, and kindness where you don’t expect it. That’s like taking an amusement-park ride with no seat belts: hang on tight, because it might hurt.

What’s left to say, then, about this book?  Nothing, except that you’ll like it for everything it wrings from you. “The Sun Does Shine” could be the most impressive book you’ll lay eyes on. 

“The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West”

By John Branch

c. 2018, W.W. Norton

$26.95, $35.95 Canada; 288 pages

You can’t take it with you. People have tried for millennia to keep all their toys but eventually, there comes a time to step aside and pass the baton to the next person who needs a chance. It’s their turn, their time to take things and run. The tricky part, as in the new book “The Last Cowboys” by John Branch, is understanding when let go.

The seventh generation was coming up.

“The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West” by John Branch.

With 13 children and numerous grandchildren, sixth-generation rancher Bill Wright knew that his family’s spread in Utah, near Zion National Park, would likely be passed to one of them someday. Meanwhile, working cattle, maintaining water reservoirs, it was a full-time business, but ranching was in Wright’s blood.

Once, though, for him, there was the rodeo. That was the other thing Wright, a former bronc rider, had bestowed upon his sons: love of rodeo. His eldest boy, Cody, had reached high-level status as a bronc rider, and Cody’s brothers were moving up the ranks behind him. There was pride in that, not envy, and a dream for Cody that he might someday compete alongside his own sons.

But bronc riding is a hard way to make a living. For eight seconds, a rider must maintain balance, position, and form while astride a bucking, twisting, jumping horse. Points come from rider and horse, both; purses are cumulative and help rank the riders. Injuries are so common, they’re almost expected.

Says Branch, “The next ride might be a winner. Or it might be the last.”

While his sons criss-crossed the country each summer to ride in as many rodeos as possible, Wright cared for the ranch his family loved. He “wasn’t sure about all the talk on climate change” but he knew things weren’t like they used to be. Areas that once had plenty of grass were now drier. Grazing permits for federal lands were a tangle of rules. Ranching got harder and harder each year – but how could he sell a generations-old legacy?

In a way, “The Last Cowboys” is one of the most time-stretching books you’ll ever read.

Half of it is written in eight-second timelines, as author John Branch describes the skill, technique, and problems with staying on a rarely-ridden horse long enough to win what could be six-figure payouts. Though it’s difficult to read, Branch writes about how hard such a sport is on a man’s body, and how addicting it can be.

As it should, the other side of this book moseys through 150 years of ranch life. Branch describes beautiful, mountainous views; and dusty pastures often tied to bureaucracy and boundaries. This side gives readers a chance to dwell in the lushness while reading, with sinking feeling, about its dwindling appeal to newer generations.

In the end, the answers are as complicated as are the rules for bronc riding and grazing rights, and readers who cherish the Old West shouldn’t wait to read about this New one. Start “The Last Cowboys,” and you’ll want to take it everywhere with you.

More:The Bookworm: Celebrating powerful women in honor of Mother’s Day

More:The Bookworm: ‘Little House’ like; a non-medical rebellion

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.