Wake Not the Hangman
In her thrilling novel Wake Not the Hangman, Deborah Leigh depicts the lives of a tyrant farmer, his terrorized wife, his determined son, and his oppressed slaves in 1834 Missouri. Marcus Guthrie rules his farm with a Hawken rifle at his side. His 15-year-old son Thornton is desperate to be free of his father’s death threats and control. When Marcus purchases three slaves from Hezzy Jones, Thornton befriends the black men and realizes they may be his only answer to freedom for himself and his abused mother. As friendships grow and love blossoms, the stakes for escape continue to rise. One man’s brave action could one day wake the sleeping hangman.
Engaging from the start, Leigh pushes the story forward with exciting force, particularly with her crisp, clean sentences that shine with vivid detail. With great perception, Leigh masterfully develops her characters, using every opportunity to shed light on her characters’ deepest thoughts, fears, and convictions with honest, reflective writing. The different points-of-view presented in the novel act altogether as an ongoing contemplation of enslavement, which, as Leigh highlights in her novel, is not limited to black slaves. The novel also explores the importance of being aware of one’s own life. With hope and confidence, Leigh’s characters show that it is worth struggling through the difficult, seemingly hopeless occurrences in life so that the joyous moments can be fully enjoyed.
The only distraction in the novel is the characters’ dialogue, which is strained and lackluster. Leigh failed to capture the dialect of her characters, specifically the regional language of white southerners or the unpolished vernacular of black slaves; all of her characters speak the same way despite class, race, and gender. Furthermore, it seems as though Leigh avoids bold plot decisions because the story as a whole does not elicit unanswered questions or contain many surprises. However, the novel’s ending, which is nothing short of exceptional, is shocking and heart-rending—proof that Leigh can ultimately take risks in her writing. Heartbreaking, nerve-wracking, and triumphant at times, Wake Not the Hangman is a deeply satisfying novel.