"Whatever you do, don't look into their eyes before they go." This is a remark by a seasoned guard, his instruction before witnessing an execution by lethal injection in the state of Texas.
The Satan Killer. The Hairdresser of Death. The Highway Honey. The Black Widow. All the women have been tagged with media nicknames, the better to hype their outrageous crimes. But they also have names: Jackie, Veronica, Tiffany, Sharleen, Karen. Their world is confined to a tiny space, dank cells on death row in small-town Texas, guests of the Mountain View facility in Gatesville. Together they eat, sleep, work, exercise, day after monotonous day as the final one for each moves inexorably closer.
Franny Wren is a New York doctor whose uncle has just died. The date of her impending marriage sends Franny running back to the small town of her youth after she breaks her ill-suited engagement. During the dog days of August, Franny volunteers to take her uncle's place at the women's prison until a replacement can be found.
Celia Mills owes her recent widowhood to Karen Lowens, The Highway Honey, who murdered abusive "johns" to obtain gifts for her junkie lover, Ellen. Henry, Celia's husband, happened to walk in on a bad scene; Karen panicked and shot him, then watched as the light left his eyes. Now Celia's been invited to the execution of her young husband's murderer.
Hour by hour throughout the scorching days of this summer, each woman on death row grows closer to her date. Emotions run as high and oppressive as the waves of heat that shimmer over the parched Texas landscape. At one point, the three women, Franny, Celia and Karen, doctor, widow and murderer, will cross paths. Karen, the Highway Honey, is in the last stages of AIDS, and may not be able to keep her appointed date with death. Franny partially eases Karen's pain with an I.V. drip of morphine, clinging to their fragile human connection and acutely aware of her own limitations as a physician. After mailing a letter for Karen to the warden, hoping to assuage her grief and rage, Celia requests one visit before the impending execution. All three women will be profoundly touched by their experience, their differences and similarities aligned for a few brief moments.
Amanda Eyre Ward tackles her subject with sensitivity and an astute grasp of female bonding. Her writing is at once familiar and accessible, opening doors into a world unobserved by most, other than the usual exploitative articles from an obsessed media. Female criminals, especially those convicted of multiple or outrageous murders, draw interest by their very nature, contrary to society's perception of woman as nurturer. Ward takes us inside these women's last days and explores the nature of their accountability. As well, the small but intense portraits of Franny and Celia add another dimension to the far-reaching consequences of murder, to the innocent bystanders it touches with cold fingers. But it is Ward's compassion that makes this small novel such a powerful experience, for she embraces them all, frailties and flaws as well as a singular clarity.