By Tim Lockette

Geographically, Lisa Rives lives on a lake in a small Alabama town. Emotionally, she lives in that unsettling landscape of teenagers who have realized the world is a messed-up place. Lisa’s parents fight a lot and she suspects her dad is having an affair with a co-worker. Her former-beauty-queen mom spouts harmful stereotypes, for example suggesting that Lisa and her father have autism since they clearly have “something wrong” with them. Oh and that lake, around which her town of Beachside was built? It’s “fake.”

The real story begins when Lisa’s friend Preethy begs her to take over as school newspaper editor after Preethy’s friend Jamie resigns to run for student body president. Lisa is reluctant. She’s always been curious about people and current events, but only because she knows the world is dangerous and doesn’t want to be caught off guard. She ends up at the paper’s helm anyway and finds herself assigned to cover the same election that got her the job.

Faced with the task of interviewing candidates, she tells her cool new journalism teacher that one of the would-be presidents, Nolan Ramsey, makes her uncomfortable by constantly talking about how he wants to have sex with her. The teacher responds: “So what? He’s always joking about how he’d like to have sex with me too.” The sexual harassment goes largely unaddressed. Preethy even suggests that Lisa could have had “a pretty OK boyfriend” if she’d agreed to date the candidate instead of writing about him.

Lisa goes ahead with the interviews, asking questions about each candidate’s politics, a topic that historically had been off limits, and inadvertently tips the scale in favor of her harasser. As the power and responsibility of her role begin to sink in, Lisa sets her sights on covering the execution of a local man who’s been sentenced to death. Soon she’s the story, as other media outlets report on her unusual request.

This is where the novel hits its stride, with an unflinching look at capital punishment, no doubt influenced by the author’s own experiences as a newspaper reporter covering the death penalty in Alabama. Lisa encounters considerable pushback. When questioned about why someone so young should be allowed into an execution chamber, she reminds the reporters gathered that South Carolina executed a 14-year-old (in 1944) and points out that Alabama’s records about executions are spotty. “All we can know about some of those executions is what newspapers tell us,” Lisa says. “If the press isn’t there, then it’s a black hole. Some people just want to shrug and go on, but I want to know the truth. Even if it’s unpleasant.”

It’s noticeable that a novel set in Alabama, with its long history of unequal justice for Black men, features a nearly all-white cast — unlike “Atty at Law,” Lockette’s middle grade novel, also set in Alabama. (A Black corrections department spokesman and Preethy, who’s Indian American, are exceptions.) Racism is mentioned, though, as inmates shout out prison windows at the media, and the book doesn’t shy away from discomfort. The execution day is discussed in enough detail that neither the main character nor readers are able to look away. And that’s the point.

Through the act of bearing witness, Lisa evolves from a reluctant student editor to a budding journalist. She leaves the death chamber observation room changed, and readers are likely to turn the final page of her story with new perspectives as well.

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