June Nealon has sustained unbearable heartbreaks. Not only did she lose her first husband in a tragic accident, her second husband, Kirk, and young daughter, Elizabeth, were murdered while she was pregnant with her second daughter, Clare. Their murderer, Shay Bourne, became New Hampshire’s only condemned inmate in 69 years. Now eleven years old, Clare’s heart grows weaker and she will not survive unless she receives a heart transplant. With his execution date looming, Shay begins performing inexplicable feats from within his prison cell. And announces that when he is put to death, he wants to donate his heart to Clare. Shay claims that donating his heart to Clare is the only way he can earn the redemption that will otherwise elude him for eternity. But organ donation will be medically impossible if Shay is executed by lethal injection.
As Shay continues performing alleged miracles, causing many to question his true identity, a media frenzy grows. Public interest in the case is heightened when ACLU attorney Maggie Bloom becomes determined to find a legal mechanism that will allow for Shay to be executed by another means. Maggie’s motives are not entirely altruistic, at the outset. She sees Shay’s case an opportunity to put the death penalty itself on trial.
Father Michael Wright, a young local priest, is called to serve as Shay’s spiritual advisor. Initially strong in his convictions and beliefs — and determined to convince Shay that redemption has no relationship to organ donation — Father Michael is harboring a secret that could derail Maggie’s carefully constructed legal strategy and destroy the trusting relationship he has established with Shay. He was not just one of the jurors who convicted Shay and sentenced him to death. He was the last juror to vote in favor of condemning Shay.
As the legal battle rages, Shay continues performing miracles at the prison that are witnessed by officers, fellow inmates, and Father Michael himself. And quoting obscure Gnostic texts that were omitted from the Bible and an uneducated man with a troubled childhood would never have learned about. The media questions whether he is a messiah as June, Father Michael, and Maggie find themselves grappling with the beliefs and values about which they have been, until now, certain.
How do we achieve redemption? What role does forgiveness play in the process? Are some acts simply too abhorrent to be forgiven? Who decides — individuals or society? How expansive might your capacity to forgive be if the life of your child were hanging in the balance? Those are just some of the moral dilemmas Jodi Picoult asks readers to ponder in Change of Heart.
Shay Bourne is not fighting to have his sentence overturned. On the contrary, he has accepted his fate. But he is determined to donate his heart to Clare, ostensibly as a means of atoning for murdering her father and sister. He is adamant that he will be unable to rest in peace unless he is permitted to do so. His seemingly miraculous acts — including bringing a dead bird back to life — lend credence to his sincerity and cause those around him to begin questioning everything they have ever believed about religion, faith, and the path to heaven.
This is especially true of Father Michael whose past history with Shay, coupled with his current role as Shay’s spiritual advisor, brings into question his belief in the teachings of the Catholic Church and the strength of his faith. He was never comfortable with his vote as a juror, so plagued for the past eleven years by guilt and uncertainty that he is willing to violate ethical principles applicable both to the Priesthood and the legal system in order to counsel Shay now. His doubts lead him to search for answers to a variety of questions pertaining to Shay’s behavior, his knowledge of the arcane Gnostic gospels, and whether Shay is truly capable of performing divinely-inspired miracles. Gnostic Christians believe that spiritual enlightenment is achieved not by good works, adherence to religious tenets or belief in Jesus as the Savior. Rather, they believe that Jesus serves merely as a guide to spiritual fulfillment because everyone is a divine part of God and must find his/her own path to salvation through questioning rather than obedience. Their secret texts were not included in the Bible because they were deemed heretic by Biblical scholars. For example, the Gospel of Thomas teaches, in part: “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” Shay interprets that verse to direct him to donate his heart to Clare.
Maggie Bloom is the professed atheist daughter of a rabbi who also finds herself questioning not just her beliefs, but her motives, as she prepares to present Shay’s case. She argues that his right to the free exercise of his religion deprives the State of New Hampshire from authority to carry out the death sentence by lethal injection, given that Shay would be denied the right to donate his heart. She must not only convince the court that Shay sincerely ascribes to a specific religious ideal. She must also offer the judge a workable alternative method by which the death sentence can be carried out. Picoult’s reputation for meticulously researching her subject is secure as she provides a thoroughly convincing and believable description of Maggie’s quest and findings, including a charming doctor who offers to assist with the case.
“And if I could ask people to take away one thing from my book it would be this: to stop thinking of beliefs as absolutes . . .and to see them instead as an invitation to have a conversation, and maybe learn something from someone else’s point of view.” ~ Jodi Picoult
In her signature style, Picoult asks readers to contemplate their own feelings about complex subjects ranging from the death penalty, to what it means to be a person of faith, to how one achieves salvation (assuming, of course, that it is even needed or desired), to the lengths to which a parent is willing to go to save his/her child. As is often the case in Picoult’s stories, there is an epic legal battle with a ruling that has enormous implications both for the characters and readers. Also in typical Picoult fashion, the plot twists are not only surprising — they force her reader to reconsider the events and their factual bases that have transpired up to that point because it seems inconceivable that nothing was actually as it seemed. The characters, their fate, and the issues Picoult probes remain with the reader long after reading the conclusion.
Once again, I find myself highly recommending Picoult’s work. Change of Heart is an absorbing, thought-provoking examination of the criminal justice system, religion, spirituality, parental love and obligation, and the power of forgiveness.
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