Last Updated on February 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1254
Joseph “Joe” Moon
Joe, the novel’s seventeen-year-old narrator, lives in Arlington, New York, with his older sister, Angela, and his mother’s sister, Karen. Joe’s father died when he was one, and his mother left the family when he was ten. His older brother, Ed, is on death row in Texas, awaiting his execution. At the start of the novel, Joe has moved to Wakeling, Texas, to support Ed in his final days, leaving behind his job at an auto shop and a promising career in athletics.
Initially upset at having to be in Wakeling, Joe expresses resentment against his absent mother; his Aunt Karen, who has stopped supporting him financially because of his decision to visit Ed; and Ed himself. However, as the narrative proceeds and Joe tentatively rebuilds a relationship with Ed, whom he once idolized, his perspective starts to grow more generous. Joe starts to date Nell, a waitress at the local diner, and begins to understand the power of forgiveness and love.
Though Joe is shown to be a realist, he also carries a secret hope that Ed will receive a last-minute reprieve. Although Joe asks Ed if he really committed the murder for which he has been convicted, it is clear that Joe’s support for Ed does not depend on Ed’s answer. Regardless of Ed’s guilt or innocence, Joe is by his side, protesting the fundamental unfairness that traps Ed. Thus, Joe shows himself to be wise and compassionate beyond his years.
Edward “Ed” Moon
Ed was eighteen when he was convicted of the murder of Texan police officer Frank Pheelan. Before his conviction, Ed was an idol for his younger siblings, often taking them out for treats and drives, and helping them cope with an abusive home. However, his mother’s abuse forces Ed to run away from home in their Aunt Karen’s car, triggering a devastating series of events. In Texas, Ed is pulled over by Pheelan. Panicking since he lacks the car’s registration papers, Joe “splits” as Pheelan goes to get his radio. However, Pheelan is murdered by an unknown attacker hours later. Since Ed was the last person Pheelan reported, the police arrest Ed for the murder. Confused by their interrogation, Ed signs a false confession and is soon sentenced to death.
Yet when Joe meets Ed ten years later, Joe is surprised to discover the persistence of Ed’s compassion, grace, and protectiveness for his younger siblings. Ed constantly tries to shield Joe from the inevitability of his own death and jokes around with the prison guards. In his last letter, addressed to Joe and their sister, Angela, Ed urges the two to live an authentic life. Thus, Ed functions as the heart of the novel. His character also serves to show how prisons and judicial systems dehumanize the incarcerated—and how the incarcerated can handle even that dehumanization with grace.
Sister to Ed and Joe, Angela is a pragmatic, nurturing young woman who takes over the role of Joe’s quasi-parent in Ed’s absence. With Joe too young to understand the situation at the time of Ed’s arrest, it is chiefly Angela who keeps in touch with Ed during his imprisonment. It is also Angela who “writes to every non-profit in the country” to procure legal aid for Ed. In a decision that illustrates her deep love for her family, Angela decides to witness Ed’s execution so that he doesn’t feel “alone.” Although Joe tries to talk Angela out of this position, she remains adamant, staying with Ed until the end.
Known only as “Mom,” Ed, Angela, and Joe’s mother is a negligent parent who abuses alcohol and leaves her children to their own devices. One of the worst aspects of her behavior is her treatment of Ed, whom she frequently exhorts to leave the house and “get a job.” Her abuse of Ed is one of the reasons he runs away from home in Aunt Karen’s car. After Ed is charged with murder, Mom doesn’t advocate for him and is too passive to act. Although she sometimes writes to Ed in prison and promises to meet him before his execution, she does not keep her promise. Mom’s behavior highlights how familial abuse fuels the cycle of minors getting in trouble with the law.
A complex character, Aunt Karen is the maternal aunt of Ed, Angela, and Joe. Aunt Karen moves into their Arlington home to care for Joe and Angela after Mom leaves them. Once very fond of Ed, Aunt Karen turns against him after his arrest, convinced that Ed is the reason for their family’s decline. She discourages Joe and Angela from meeting Ed and refuses to pay for legal aid for him. When Joe moves to Wakeling, Aunt Karen spitefully cuts off his financial resources.
However, Aunt Karen has also been a positive influence in Joe and Angela’s childhood, providing them with much-needed structure. Although Aunt Karen cannot be absolved for her treatment of Ed, she does show up for him and his siblings in the end. When Angela decides to witness Ed’s execution, Aunt Karen stays with her. Aunt Karen proves an important observation made by Joe’s girlfriend, Nell: every person is better than their “bad” deeds.
A high school student like Joe, Nell works part-time at Bob’s Diner in Wakeling. Nell is shown to be an intelligent and self-possessed young woman. Although she initially pulls back from Joe because of reasons he learns later, she ends up falling in love with him. Compassionate and wise, Nell offers Joe a fresh perspective on the universality of human flaws.
Once Joe discovers that Nell is the daughter of prison warden Phillip Miller, he briefly refuses to see her. However, Nell treats Joe with patience and understanding, reminding him that in equating her with her father, he is “damning” her by association—just as others have damned him for being Ed’s brother. Joe and Nell are reunited before Ed’s execution.
The warden of the Wakeling state penitentiary, Miller is a committed professional and a strict father to Nell. Although his treatment of Joe is fair, Joe observes that it does not neutralize the distasteful nature of his job: Miller will be the one ordering Ed’s execution. Miller’s refusal to take a stand on Ed’s execution makes him a less-than-sympathetic character from Joe’s point of view.
A waitress at Bob’s Diner, Sue shows Joe many unexpected kindnesses, such as when she gets the truck Joe’s been working on secretly repaired. Later, she reveals that her son, a “lifer” at the prison, was killed by another inmate.
Al Mitchell is a lawyer who works for a legal aid nonprofit. After Angela writes to him, he agrees to take up Ed’s case and tries his best to revoke Ed’s death sentence. Although he enters the scene too late to be able to save Ed, his advocacy is impeccable. Mitchell represents real-life activists who tirelessly fight for the rights of prisoners.
Governor McDowell exemplifies political callousness towards poor prisoners. The last of Ed’s three chances to be granted clemency, McDowell is already inclined to deny Ed’s petition. When Mitchell takes Ed’s petition to him, he notes that McDowell is already printing a denial before even reading the petition. Despite Mitchell’s efforts, McDowell refuses to grant Ed clemency.