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....
(The entire section is 1,250 words.)