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Half-Moon and Empty Stars

By Gerry Spence, Scribner, NY, 2001, 412 pages

Review By Hans Sherrer

Half-Moon and Empty Stars is the first novel by renowned defense lawyer Gerry Spence. Although he is the author of ten nonfiction books and the power of his storytelling skills to sway juries is legendary, I began the book wondering if Mr. Spence could be as mesmerizing in writing a fictional story. My conclusion can be summarized in two words: he succeeded.

The novel's core is the life story of Charlie Redtail, a half-breed Indian who lived his entire life in a small Wyoming town and the neighboring reservation towered over by Spirit Mountain. When Charlie was a boy, his Indian father died in jail after being assaulted by several white men at a local bar. As a young man, Charlie was charged with murdering one of the men involved in his father's death, who were never prosecuted. That murder is the novel's seminal event.

Charlie's tale is largely told through the stories of people whose paths crossed his for varying reasons. The most notable people in those sub-stories are his father, his wife, his twin brother, a lawyer and longtime family friend who defends Charlie, his best friend, an elder on the reservation, a slick New York defense lawyer, the man Charlie is accused of murdering, the prosecutor, the judge, a sheriff deputy, a mysterious stranger, and the jurors. Although Charlie was a loner, a subtle undertone of his story is that his interactions with these and other people were web-like . It could be Mr. Spence's take on the old adage -- "No man is an island."

Although it may seem to start sluggishly, the plot doesn't rely on surprises and gimmicks to keep the reader's interest, and it steadily becomes engrossing. Half-Moon and Empty Stars can be read and enjoyed on one level as the well told story of a man accused of murdering someone who participated in his father's killing and later tried to prostitute his mother. It can also be read and savored on a deeper level as an exploration of such enduring human themes as love, spirituality, loyalty, honor, prejudice, avarice, ambition, revenge and justice. Mr. Spence draws on his lifetime of experience in the legal system to believably weave those themes into the nightmare in which Charlie became enmeshed. The book isn't preachy, and there is no one moral or lesson Mr. Spence seems to want to impress upon the reader. The message, if any, may be Charlie's odyssey, and the people who were a part of it.

The novel Mr. Spence has crafted is a testament to the breadth of his storytelling skills and his understanding of human motivations. If you are in the mood for a thoughtful and meaty story, I highly recommend Half-Moon and Empty Stars.

I will also express that I hope the quality and originality of Mr. Spence's story is recognized by enough people for him to be motivated to write a sequel. As it finished, there were numerous loose ends that left me hungering for the book to continue. I also hope that a producer takes a liking to Half-Moon Empty Stars, because in the right hands it could be made into a memorable movie, particularly considering it is reminiscent in mood, intensity, and is loosely of the same genre as three contemporary and very successful novels that were made into movies: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Geterson (1994) (reviewed in JD, Volume 2 Issue 4); Map of the World by Jane Hamilton (1992) (reviewed in JD, Volume 2, Issue 1) and Smilla's Sense of Snow By Peter Hoeg (1993).

Justice Denied

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