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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1251

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When seven-year-old Joe Moon answers a call from his older brother, Ed, he can’t quite make sense of Ed’s words:

I got arrested, Joe. . . .
They think I hurt someone.
But I didn’t. You hear?

Even after their mother informs the family that Ed has been charged with murder, Joe still believes that Ed is coming home. What he does not yet know is that Ed has been charged with murdering a white police officer in Texas and that their family is too poor to hire a lawyer for Ed. What he does not yet know is that this set of intersecting facts means Ed will be put on death row.

Ed’s fate is foreshadowed from the opening chapter, so Moonrise does not play out like a thriller (where justice is served at the last minute) but instead as the story of a family eroded by an unjust justice system. Sarah Crossan makes the unusual choice of writing the novel, which is narrated by Joe, in free verse, thus lending the text a raw, minimalistic power. Unweighted by the clutter of prose, Joe’s voice conveys the implacable facts of his story as they are.

In the next chapter, Joe, now seventeen, travels to Wakeling, Texas, from New York. He is there to visit Ed, who has sent a letter with his execution date: August 18. Though Joe hasn’t seen Ed in ten years, he has fond memories of Ed, who gave Joe and their sister, Angela, love and structure in a home dominated by poverty and a neglectful mother. Even from death row, Ed is protective toward his younger brother:

Don’t freak out, OK?
Let me do the sweating.

Since Angela cannot take a break from her job, Joe is the only one who can be there for Ed as his execution date nears. Their mother left the children long ago, and Aunt Karen, their guardian, is livid about Joe’s decision to go to Texas. For Aunt Karen, Ed is the reason for their family’s downfall. Struggling for money in Texas, Joe works out a deal with Bob, a local diner owner, and Sue, a waitress there: if Joe can fix Bob’s car, there may be a job in the offing for him, and as long as he is working on the car, he can get free food at the diner.

Moving between the inexorable march to Ed’s execution and the past, Joe’s narrative paints a rich, heartbreaking portrait of a vulnerable family. Joe’s descriptions of past experiences with his older brother also serve to humanize Ed, making him more than a death row convict.

When Joe sees Ed for the first time since Ed’s incarceration, Joe is appalled to see how much his older brother has aged. The sterile, claustrophobic environment of the prison and the thick plexiglass that separates the brothers brings home the realities of Ed’s incarceration. As Joe’s renewed connection with Ed deepens, so too does Joe’s dismay at the workings of the justice system. Ed’s lawyer, Al Mitchell, who provides free legal aid, tells Joe that Ed has been convicted on the basis of a forced confession. No forensic evidence binds Ed to police officer Frank Pheelan’s murder. Three “slim chances” remain between Ed and his execution: appeals to the state court, the Supreme Court, and, finally, the governor. Mitchell gives Joe hope, but Joe worries that his hopes will just as easily be dashed. As the narrative proceeds, Joe’s rage against the justice and prison systems intensifies. For Joe, the prison’s warden, Philip Miller, becomes the face of a brutal, dehumanizing system.

Grappling with these overwhelming realities, Joe finds release in running and solace in the company of Nell, another waitress at Bob’s Diner. Nell is also connected to the federal prison where Ed is kept—but in a way that later takes Joe by complete surprise.

Additionally, an unasked question haunts Joe: Did Ed actually murder Pheelan? When Ed tells Joe the truth, Joe is shocked. After Ed left home for Texas in Aunt Karen’s car, he was stopped by Pheelan. Lacking registration papers, Ed bailed on Pheelan. Hours later, Pheelan was found murdered. Since Ed was the last person Pheelan reported, Ed was arrested for the crime. Lacking legal guidance or parental supervision, an exhausted Ed signed a false confession simply to get police officers off his back. At the time, Ed genuinely felt that his situation could be reversed; however, the courts had found a culprit for the murder of an officer, and the system would never let go of Ed.

Stunned at the facts, Joe meets Ed with a striking admission of his own. Exemplifying the book’s themes of forgiveness of love, Joe tells his older brother,

I’d still be sitting here if you did it.
I’d know you didn’t deserve this.

Thus, Joe makes an important point: everyone deserves a second chance. Certainly, Pheelan’s widow thinks so, and she writes to the state court demanding that the death penalty be revoked for Ed. The judge is barely interested in the letter, however, and her petition is rejected. Now, the only remaining hopes for the Moons are the Supreme Court and the governor—but the governor, a Republican, is unlikely to offer clemency. Thus, the text highlights how several political agendas factor into imprisonments and punishment, justice the least of them.

Meanwhile, Joe discovers that Nell is the daughter of Miller, the warden. Enraged with Nell at keeping her father’s identity a secret, Joe storms out of her house. Soon enough, though, Joe realizes that in shunning Nell, he is damning her by association, just like he was damned all his life by virtue of being Ed’s brother. Although Joe never absolves Miller, he grudgingly comes to understand that Miller is simply a cog in the system. Joe even comes to forgive Aunt Karen, acknowledging that she has been a positive influence on him and Angela.

Tragically, the Supreme Court also rejects Ed’s clemency appeal. With seven days left before Ed’s execution, his family is finally allowed to see him physically, without plexiglass separating them. Angela arrives in town, followed by Aunt Karen, to Joe’s intense surprise. Although the siblings are delighted to be able to touch and hold Joe, a somber sense of the inevitable now grips the proceedings.

With the clemency petition still under Governor McDowell’s review on the night of Ed’s execution, the family finally leave a disconsolate Ed at 10 p.m. Angela and Karen stay to watch Ed’s execution, and Joe joins Nell outside, hoping for an eleventh-hour miracle. However, a minute before midnight, Joe learns that the governor has denied their appeal. He stumbles around in pain, imagining Ed’s execution and agony in detail.

A few days later, Joe collects Ed’s meager belongings from the prison, among them a letter for Joe and Angela. In the letter, finished minutes before his execution, Ed admits to feeling shaky but not abjectly afraid. Most importantly, he tells his siblings he has no regrets. Though his gamble at leaving home did not pay off, he is still happy he took the chance and exhorts his siblings to

Do all the stuff you want even
if someone tries to deadlock your front door.

Thus, the story ends on a note of acceptance, if not redemption.