Originally published in Danish, this novel looks at the last 12 hours before a teen boy will be executed on Gallows Hill. The novel shows the approach the execution from the point of view of different members of the community and from the boy, Niels, himself. It opens the night before with Niels swinging out and trying to hit the devil but instead smashing his hand badly. He then has a fly he speaks with, who buzzes around him and Niels imagines himself having long conversations with it. There is the master carpenter in town who will measure Niels for his coffin. The master baker who looks to profit from the busyness that an execution brings to the market. A poet who pens his record of the events. A three-legged dog, who befriended the boy and now waits in the streets. A girl who has fed the boy before and even kissed him. And the executioner with the axe he has inherited.
Based on the last execution in Svendborg, Denmark in 1853, this novel takes a serious and haunting look at what could have brought a boy to the edge of execution and whether he deserves his fate. The entire book ticks closer and closer to the execution and the book offers little hope of reprieve at any point. As the hours pass, the full story of the boy and his father emerges. The desperate poverty they lived in together, working on farms for food and then walking to another farm looking for work. The dire illness of his father that led him to be unable to work some days and eventually die. The hope that starts to light Niels life just before a mistake takes it all away.
I appreciate so much that this is such a dark story. There are moments of hope that shine like sunbeams but they are for past hope, happening before Niels is in his cell. Once there, there is no hope. There is no reprieve for him and no promise of such is ever held out. It is a novel that moves on and on and on to the inevitable, something that could be stopped but now can only be witnessed and readers are forced to witness it along with those that thronged and judged.
Terrifying, moving and deeply poetic, this historical novel asks huge questions and leaves the answers to the reader. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum.