Turning a Closet into a Pantry

We live in a small place right now. The kitchen is especially small – not really big enough to store food for 7 people and the pots, pans, and dishes that I need for our family. In addition to the lack of storage area, the cupboards are a bit too high for me (I’m barely 5′ tall, especially without shoes). Between those two obstacles, I was quite frustrated with my kitchen, so my husband came up with a solution: we turned half of the coat closet into a pantry.

First, let me briefly describe the layout to our home. You come in the front door, which when open blocks off the view of the kitchen. To your immediate left is the coat closet. The kitchen is a galley kitchen, which means it’s open on both sides. One side opens to the foyer and the other to the dining room (which itself opens to the living room). So when the front door is closed, the kitchen is right next to the coat closet.

two shelves with a variety of jars of food on them.

Actually making the transformation was super simple. We first emptied out the closet (except for the shelf up above, which already housed primarily small kitchen appliances). My husband and teenagers then brought in two old bookshelves that we’ve had forever. They had been kept in our tiny outdoor storage unit, just waiting for a decision to be made on them. We’ve talked many times about getting rid of them, but never have for one reason or another. In this home, I’m so glad we’ve kept them! I cleaned the shelves really well and then covered the shelves with contact paper so they would match the other shelves and drawers that we covered when we first moved in. Then Will and the kids tucked the shelves into the closet. They fit perfectly, depth wise, and take up just over half of the closet width wise, so we still have room for coats and cleaning supplies (mop, broom, vacuum).

Knowing my youngest son as well as I do (he is the most difficult of all our children, by far), I nailed the shelves to the wall. I just knew that he would try to climb them – and he has, many times – so it was imperative that they not be able to tip over on him. With that done, we were able to “move in”!

a bookshelf full of foodIt took me a while to get used to the new pantry, so it was weird at first trying to figure out what to put where. But once I got used to the idea, things just really flowed and I was able to fill up the shelves almost like second nature. Now, I don’t even think about the actual kitchen cupboards anywhere when I get home from the grocery store. I put the really tall things on the top shelf – cereal boxes, my spice rack, and bottles of vegetable oil for example. Just below that, on the second shelf, I put the canned goods, organized by type (beans, vegetables, tomato products). The third shelf houses my baking supplies. I filled a mixing bowl with the small items like baking powder and soda, vanilla, cinnamon. Next to that are the bags of all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, sugar, and masa (corn flour for making tortillas). The next shelf down is my favorite one. It’s my “extra supplies” shelf. There live the things that we already have in the fridge, but that I often forget to buy more of. So when the fridge one runs out, I’m sure to have a spare on hand. Think mayo, mustard, ketchup, salad dressing, lemon juice, etc. Things we use frequently but not quickly. The very bottom shelf is where I keep the heavier items, like bags of popcorn and rice.

The second shelf is right next to the other one. Literally touching. It houses the things that don’t quite fit on the first shelf, food as well as non-food kitchen supplies like cookbooks. It doesn’t tend to be as full as the other one, but it’s still nice to have available for overflow.

Have you ever repurposed a “room” in your house?


Exploring Different Learning Styles (and how my kids learn best)

I have four school-age kids right now, and they each have different strengths. I want to take some time today to talk about each of them, specifically in the realm of how they learn and how I homeschool them based on those learning styles, in the hopes that this exploration might be helpful to someone else out there.

Ballet Boy (17 years old)

My oldest son took me a bit by surprise when he was starting school. My husband and I both have academic tendencies, so I expected our children to also veer that way naturally. Boy was I in for a shock! Ballet Boy didn’t really want anything to do with school, and looking back I’m not sure I blame him. All he knew was playing with Mom. He’d never been to daycare, so the sudden change from “little kid at home” to “you’re 5 now, it’s time for school” was a shock to his little system. And back then, I didn’t have half the knowledge I do now about different learning styles. I figured all kids would benefit from a traditional education. Because I went to public school, and only knew kids who also had, I had no idea there could be more to homeschooling than basic lists of things to accomplish. Due to my inexperience combined with my fear of homeschool not being “enough,” we got a stack of workbooks and I taught him the material. He filled out the answers, and we called it a day.

But he was miserable.

See, he wasn’t (and still isn’t) a traditional learner. My oldest son works best when he can hear the lessons rather than seeing them. He can listen to audio books and dramas and retain way more information than when he reads that same book. For this reason, things like Heirloom Audio productions make fantastic history resources for him. He did well with Apologia’s audio textbook for science when he was small.

If you have a child who struggles with reading, maybe try an audio approach instead. (And this is not me saying that reading isn’t important. I believe with all my heart that it is, and everyone should learn to read when they are young. But knowing that there are options besides just books is also helpful.)

Scorpion (14 years old)

My second child could not be more different than his older brother. When Ballet Boy started 1st grade when he was 7 (compulsory school age in our state was 7-18 back then; it’s 6-18 now), Scorpion wanted to do school too. He was only 4 at the time, but we decided to humor him and got some kindergarten workbooks (this was back when we still thought that was the best method for every child). He did really well with them. I didn’t even have to teach him to read. He just randomly picked it up when he was tiny. When he was 5 and Ballet Boy was 8, they were at roughly the same reading level. We had just finished the school year and signed the boys up for summer reading at the library. We told them that if they each read a chapter book, we would give them a monetary prize in addition to whatever they earned from the library. (But the goal wasn’t optional.) They both did it, but Scorpion managed it with a more difficult book than Ballet Boy.

When he was just 5 years old, he read Charlotte’s Web by himself.

Ever since then, he’s been a self starter who thrives with visual learning. He can read all the books in the world and retain everything he reads. Video lessons are great for him because he can see the visual aids and understand what’s being taught. And he’s a self starter. Now that he’s entering high school, I can give him a list (something he can see), and he will just work through it with very little intervention from me. So I recommend for the visual learners that you embrace that fully – give them things they can look at, read, and process on their own terms. You’ll likely have a very independent future student!

Grasshopper (9 years old)

Grasshopper gets a lot of face time on this blog, mostly because he’s at the age where there are so many cool things to teach him. He really loves school now, but it wasn’t always that way. See, when he was just starting, he struggled with reading. I thought it was going to be a repeat of Ballet Boy’s early years. And in many ways, it was. He didn’t read well until this past school year. He fought me many days, and always tried to get some sort of early reprieve from school or better yet, a day off for no reason.

But now that he’s older, I can see that he mostly thrives with one-on-one time. That’s not always possible, but often times it is. If I can distract the younger brothers for a bit of time (an episode of PJ Masks, or a game idea with their toys will usually do the trick!), I can give him 20 or 30 minutes of specialized time to focus on learning. We do a lot of his lessons this way, a little bit at a time, amongst the brothers also needing me. This also works with his attention span (and jealousy of the youngers getting to play while he works). Work a little, play with your brothers. Work a bit more, then play again. It makes the day a little bit longer, but not terribly so. And it gives him the individualized time he needs as well as periodic breaks to lessen the load.

Dragonfly (5 years old)

My fourth son is a lot like Scorpion. He’s desperate to learn, and while he also wants one-on-one time, he does really well with digital learning. Preschool apps (like Reading Eggs or LeapFrog) are totally his jam. He could do those all day long. He was born into a digital era, and he totally embraces it. Other than unlocking the iPad, he can do those types of lessons entirely on his own, which is both really helpful and a little bittersweet. Of course, I don’t let him do only digital things – he reads physical books and works with paper and pencil/crayon too – but it’s super convenient to have them available for him. And I don’t doubt for one minute that he’ll be able to switch to a computer pretty easily when he’s older and ready to take the next technological leap in his teen years and beyond.

What types of learning styles do you deal with in your homeschool?


Book Club: Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen is one of my favorite authors. In fact, having read her 2015 novel At the Water’s Edge is what inspired me to start the book club series on my blog.

But that’s not what inspired me to read Water for Elephants the first time.

When I first heard of the book back in 2011, it was already five years old. But it was getting the movie treatment right in the midst of the Twilight craze, and back then I was a crazy Twilight fan. How are the two related, you wonder? The male lead in Twilight, Robert Pattinson, was one of the stars of Water for Elephants. Because he was slated to be in the film, I wanted to read the book and then see the movie when it came out. So I got it on Audible and listened to it while making cloth diapers for Grasshopper before he was born. And now I’ve just read it (really read it, not listened) for the first time. I also rewatched the movie (with Scorpion, who’d never seen it).

And I loved both. Such a great story!

the official "water for elephants" book cover. a man is walking into a circus tent, and the title of the book is overlaid atop the image.

The remainder of this post contains spoilers for the novel and movie Water for Elephants.

My plan for this post, at least in part, is to answer some of the book club questions from my e-book, but first I want to spend a little bit of time comparing the book and the movie.

The story is the same, but there are a few big differences. First, the Uncle Al character in the book didn’t make it to the film. Instead, movie-August encompasses both roles. I don’t think this took away from the story at all. In fact, as I was reading I found Uncle Al almost distracting because he didn’t really seem to add much (despite being the owner of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus). I liked having August take care of both roles. The fact that he was played by the amazing Christoph Waltz was just icing on the cake.

In the book, we hear from “Old Jacob” about every third chapter. In the film, he appears only at the very beginning at the very end. I think both ways actually work pretty well, but the film version just ekes out the win for me here. It feels more like Old Jacob is actually telling the story from start to finish in the film rather than fighting not to forget his past due to his old age in the book.

Here’s a good article describing more of the differences between the book and the film if you’re interested. But now, on to some book discussion questions.

In connection with Jacob’s formal dinner with August and Marlena in their stateroom, Jacob remarks, “August is gracious, charming, and mischievous.” To what extent is this an adequate characterization of August?

This seemed like a pivotal moment in the story to me. It marks the exact time that August first sees Jacob as something of an equal. But Jacob wasn’t fooled by August, at least not fully. He can spot the graciousness, the charm. But that mischievous nature is always there, just underneath the surface of August’s demeanor. You can never trust him, and in the end that proves more true than anyone realizes.

In his Carnival of the Animals, Ogden Nash wrote, “Elephants are useful friends.” In what ways is Rosie a “useful” friend?

I would love to have an elephant for a friend, wouldn’t you? They are my absolute favorite animal. And Rosie is a special elephant, for sure. She helps Jacob to survive the Benzini Brothers fiasco (and I don’t just mean the stampede at the end). She becomes his best friend, outside of Marlena, and personally I found it a lovely relationship – vet and animal. I’m not sure Jacob would have made it through the ordeal of August, Uncle Al, and his forbidden affair with Marlena (August’s wife) without her. That makes for a very useful character, I think.

After Jacob successfully coaches August in Polish commands for Rosie, he observes, “It’s only when I catch Rosie actually purring under August’s loving ministrations that my conviction starts to crumble. And what I’m left looking at in its place is a terrible thing.” What is Jacob left “looking at,” and what makes it a “terrible thing”?

This goes back to the first question, doesn’t it? That mischievous nature of August’s, which slowly morphs and shifts to pure evil by the end of the novel. He’s able to perform when needed. He hates Rosie – that’s clear from the very beginning of their relationship – but through a careful recitation of words that Rosie can actually understand, he’s able to appear to care for her. And that difference – caring vs performing – is a very dangerous thing.

That’s all I’ve got for my book club today. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts on Water for Elephants. Have you ever read the novel? Seen the film? What did you think?


Making Math Easy with CTCMath (review)

Disclosure: I received this complimentary product through the Homeschool Review Crew.

Grasshopper had such a huge success when we used CTCMath last year that I happily agreed to review it again to keep his subscription going!

What is CTCMath? In its most basic form, CTCMath is a program that teaches all levels of math from Kindergarten through Calculus. The program is split up into grade levels, and from there, units and lessons. There are also a few games to help with speed facts. Grasshopper has been working on third grade curriculum, which includes times tables. To help him with his times tables, he has been playing the Times Tables Shoot ‘Em Up game in addition to doing 1-2 regular lessons per day.

Let’s talk first about the regular lessons. Each one consists of a short video (2-5 minutes long), followed by a 10-question digital worksheet. Students know right away whether they’ve gotten the answer right, which is really nice. In the parent account, you set the “pass grade” for each of your students. We have it set to the default 80%. This means that if my son gets 80% or better on his worksheet, the program allows him to move on to the next lesson. If he gets less than 80% (which he never does – he’s borderline in tears any time he gets less than 100%), then he is prompted to answer more questions to encourage further understanding of the topic. Because the lessons are prerecorded videos, a student can always go back and watch it again if they’re unclear on what to do. We’ve had to do that a time or two. It’s really that straightforward! Grasshopper can easily get a math lesson done in 10 minutes, including the video. That’s why he often does more than one lesson per school day. I’m sure they’re harder when you get into the more advanced maths, but we haven’t been there yet.

Times Tables Shoot ‘Em Up is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Answer the multiplication problem by shooting the correct answer. Before you begin, you can choose which times tables you want to practice, or do a mix. The answers are shown in a straight line across the screen in ascending order. The group moves slowly down the screen, and you need to answer all of the questions before they get to the bottom. Once you’ve made it through three rounds, the movement picks up considerably. Even Will and Ballet Boy took a shot at that level, and neither of them could get all the answers in the faster level despite knowing their times tables really well. The numbers just move too fast down the screen.

For more details, look at my 2020 review of CTCMath. You can also head over to the Homeschool Review Crew and see what other members think of this fantastic math program! As for us, Grasshopper is going to continue doing a couple of lessons a day through the summer, and then dive into 4th grade math in the fall.


Further Study of The American Revolution

Disclosure: I received this complimentary product through the Homeschool Review Crew.

I have reviewed quite a few products from Home School in the Woods in the past, and I’ve got the biggest one yet to share today. For the past five weeks or so, Grasshopper and I have been diving into Time Travelers U.S History Studies: The American Revolution. I knew this would be a well-written, intense curriculum, but I was amazed by just how in depth it went! Let me tell you all about it.

The Files

When you purchase a Time Travelers digital download kit (of which there are many!) from Home School in the Woods, it downloads as a zip file. It’s super easy to extract the files; just use the extraction wizard on your computer. I was super overwhelmed by the sheer number of files at first, but as I continued to dig around in the folders in preparation of teaching the unit, I really got a good feel for how they were organized. They are sorted into four sections, but I only ever used two of them: Menus and PDFs (and Menus was only used once or twice). PDFs in the main bread and butter of the program, and where you’ll spend most of your time.

When you open the PDFs folder, there are 6 subfolders, and most of those will get used quite often, with the exception of “covers.” You’ll only need that one for the initial printing (as its name suggests, it has the cover images for the lap book and notebook portions of the study).

Intro-Etc has things like the acknowledgements from the authors, a list of additional resources you can utilize while working through the study, and tips for using the study. But the most important thing in that folder is the lesson planner. For the first week, I referred to in on the computer, but after that I decided it would actually be better to have it printed out even though it felt kind of wasteful to me. But because it was a landscape oriented document, it was sideways in Adobe Acrobat, and that made it a bit cumbersome to read on the screen.

Lesson-Masters is the real meat of the product, and this is where you’ll do most of the printing for your students from. It has every single thing you need to complete the notebook and lap book for the unit study. I’ll dive more into these pages in the next section, “How we used it.”

Lesson-Projects is a very useful folder. It is divided up into lessons (there are 25 in this study), and it explains how to create each thing you do in the day. This is especially helpful in some of the more complicated lap book elements.

Lesson-Text is the reading portion of the study. Each day gets its own PDF, and each of those is 1-3 pages long.

Teacher-Keys is just what it sounds like: answer keys for the different pages.

How We Used It

I spent a bit of time just getting a feel for the study before I did anything else. I received the files in my email on a Thursday, and spent much of Friday and the weekend going over everything so I could understand how it all worked. By Sunday night, I had a pretty good idea, and then I did the first week’s printing. (I did all of the printing one week at a time; it was less cumbersome for me that way. You could, of course, do all the printing at once and store the pages until you need them if that works better for you.)

Each day, I would look over what projects were expected to be completed and would pull those papers out of our folder. I set everything aside, only giving Grasshopper one page/activity at a time. I’d usually find a simple one for him to work on while I read the lesson text aloud to him. I tried to stick to things like basic coloring or cutting for the lesson time so that he could focus on listening to me read.

Besides the lesson text, there are two main components to the study: the lap book and the notebook. You can choose to do just one of them, but we did both. Grasshopper is at that sweet spot where he’s young enough to still love doing lap books, but also old enough to benefit from notebooking. So I seized on that ability. The schedule clearly labels whether something is “notebook” or “lap book,” so if you’re only doing one of them, it’s easy to cherry pick the pages you need.

For his notebook, we just picked up a basic folder from Walmart (I think it cost me a quarter), and then I also bought a packet of file folders for the lap book because we didn’t have any. We’ve been keeping all of the completed notebook pages on the right side of the folder, and the week’s worth of printouts on the left. This relaxed organizational method might not work for others, but it’s been great for us.

One thing we’ve done differently from the suggested schedule is building the lap book. The schedule has your child create all of the mini books and store them in a baggie, then create the entire lap book on day 24. We were too excited for that! So we have been building the lap book as we go. It might end up slightly less “rigid” in the end, but that’s okay. Grasshopper is learning so much and having fun every single day.

Final Thoughts

I can’t recommend Home School in the Woods enough. A lot of their things can feel pretty overwhelming, but that’s because they’re so well written. I won’t lie: it takes a lot of printing. A lot, a lot. So if you don’t have access to a good printer (and by “good” I mean one that will give you more than 30 printed sheets per ink cartridge), this might not be the product for you (and believe me, I’ve been there in the past). But if you do have access to a good printer, you should seriously consider looking at the different Time Traveler kits. They have them for pretty much all periods in American history (up through WWII).

If you’re looking for something more “supplementary” and less “full curriculum,” allow me to suggest the Timeline sets. There are four to choose from, and they go from Creation to modern times. The timelines are a great visual for kids of all ages, too – in fact, Home School in the Woods has them listed as a K-12 product, which means you can supplement literally curriculum and make an awesome family-wide keepsake. You can choose from Creation to Christ (Beginning – 100 AD); Resurrection to Revolution (0 – 1799 AD); Napoleon to Now (1750 – modern day); and America’s History (explorers to 21st century).

Members of the Homeschool Review Crew have had the honor of reviewing a wide variety of products from Home School in the Woods (including all of the timelines I mentioned before, different eras of Time Travelers Studies, and more), and I highly recommend you check out their reviews! You won’t regret it.


On the Pontoon

My husband has wanted a boat for a long time. A really long time. But we have a couple of other “big” goals that need to happen first. But a couple of weeks ago, he took the first step toward getting a boat anyway – he took the DMV boater’s class and got his boating license! And we headed to a (fairly) local lake where we rented a pontoon and spent the afternoon on the water.

To get to the lake, we had to drive about an hour and fifteen minutes. Of course, with eight people (and two cars), that ended up being over three hours because we had to stop for lunch on the way. And to get coolers and drinks to take on the boat.

Will had reserved the boat earlier in the week, so when we arrived at the lake it was smooth sailing (pardon the pun) to get the rental finalized and load everyone onto the pontoon. He had just finished his boating license course really late the night before, so this was to be his first time driving a boat. This meant he was a bit nervous in the beginning, and it took us quite a while to get out of the “no wake” zone and into open water. We had a lovely time just puttering around the lake for about an hour and a half, but then someone had to use the bathroom (of course!). So we found a dock that had facilities and made everyone go so we wouldn’t have to stop again. Though, it turned out that the restroom was right near the swimming hole, so everyone but Will spent some time in the water. I’d forgotten my swimming suit, so I just went in ankle deep, staying with Bumblebee, who just kicked his fear of water (literally everything water, even basic stuff like handwashing) the night before. He did great going into the lake and getting his feet “all wet” (his words). Everyone else (Ballet Boy, his girl friend, Scorpion, Grasshopper, and Dragonfly) went out much deeper in the water. The younger kids wore life jackets. Will undocked the boat and sailed around while we all played in the water.

An hour before our rental was up, we loaded everyone back onto the pontoon to finish out the afternoon. Will had so much fun driving the boat, and by the end of the 3-hour-rental, he was much more confident. What had taken 15 minutes when we left the dock (navigating through the no wake zone) only took 5 at the end of the trip. And we finished the evening up with dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants.

Have you ever been on a pontoon? Did you drive, or were you a passenger?


Catching Slugs and Studying Language Arts (review)

Disclosure: I received this complimentary product through the Homeschool Review Crew.

Grasshopper has been having so much fun practicing his language arts lessons the past few weeks with Words Rock Online from EdAlive. Let me tell you a little bit about the game.

Words Rock is an online game, and it’s super easy to set up an account and log in. You have to go through the parent account the first time, where you can easily set up child accounts. I only set up an account for Grasshopper, even though the suggested age range is 5-15, and I don’t regret that decision at all. It took a few rounds of going back and forth between the student account and the parent account for me to get the settings *just right* for Grasshopper to be able to actually answer the questions each time, but once I did we only used the student account from then forward.

Playing the Game

When you first log in, you select either Start a New Game or Questions Only. We always played the game! There are  a number of avatars shown on the bottom of the screen to choose from. It seems to assign you a different one each time, but it’s easy to just click a different one that you want to use for that session. Grasshopper always chose the same guy. Then a little pop up appears, where you choose whether you want a Basic Game (smaller board with no “gadgets”) or an Advanced Game (bigger board with “gadgets”). The first few days, we did the basic game, but once we’d figured out the game and were quite comfortable with it, we switched to the advanced game and haven’t looked back since.

The game portion of the app (it’s technically a website, but runs like an app) is kind of a cross between Battleship and Minesweeper. The goal is to catch slugs, and in an advanced game there are 7 slugs taking up a total of 23 squares (the board is 10×10). When you choose a square, you are told whether the square you chose has no slug (50 points), is near a slug (50 points), contains part of a slug (100 points), or completes the capture of a slug (200 points). Each game consists of 4 players: your student and 3 computer opponents.

In the advanced game, you have the option of using helps. Each help costs a certain number of points, so you can’t use any on your first turn (because you don’t have any points yet). The helps are: scatter search, which gives you a cross beam of squares that you can choose instead of a single square (400 points); hint, which gives you a 3×3 area in which to choose, one of which is a guaranteed “part of slug” (50 points); restricted zone, which allows you to block off an area from your opponents’ future turns (125 points); and unlimited move, which opens the entire board to you (in the advanced game, you can only choose from certain unlocked squares which change each turn) (50 points). We found through playing the game that scatter search is more than worth the 400 points it costs to use, because you pretty much always get 800-1500 points back using that option. When we started using scatter search, Grasshopper’s scores went from 1500-1800 to 3000-4000 or more per game. It really made a big difference! And once he got the hang of the game, his goal shifted. Instead of aiming to win, he tried to get a better and better score each time (essentially beating himself). At the time of this writing, he aims to get 4000 points each time he plays.

After each turn, you go to the question portion of the game. Students must answer a language arts question chosen from quite a large range of topics and difficulties. They are given 2 chances. If they get the answer correct on their first try, the next round of slug finding earns them double points. If they get it right on the second try, they get 1.5x the points. Some questions are deemed “brain teasers,” and those earn even more points for the next round if answered correctly (2.4x instead of 2.0). If a question is too difficult, you can click the “too hard” button and get a new question with no penalty. We had to use that a few times, but not too often once I figured out the right settings for him in the parent-teacher portal.

Questions include things like “Click all the verbs in the sentence” and “Determine which words are opposites from the following pairs.” You’ll answer about 5-7 questions per game.

Once all 7 slugs are captured, the game ends immediately – no further questions are asked. You then see the bonus points being awarded. These are for things like “most slugs captured,” “most brain teaser attempts,” and “highest slug hit rate.” The player with the most points wins.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think there was a single day that went by (weekends included) that Grasshopper didn’t ask to play the “Slug Game.” He absolutely loved it, and I liked that he was getting some extra grammar practice in. Some of the questions required a lot of help, but most were just fine for him to understand and answer on his own. I absolutely expect him to continue playing the game each day for the entire year that we have access.

Members of the Homeschool Review Crew have been playing two other games from EdAlive this month, too. Click through to read reviews on Words Rock (language arts), Volcanic Panic (reading), and Baggin’ the Dragon (math).


Book Club: A Time for Mercy

A few months ago, Will bought me a copy of John Grisham’s (then) most recent book, A Time for Mercy. I had skipped the past few Grisham novels (nothing wrong with them, I’m sure, but he had been venturing away from legal thrillers, which are my favorites from him). I was excited to read this one, though, because it was to be a sequel to his first novel, A Time to Kill. I had read that book years ago, but had recently rewatched the movie version starring Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey.

This post contains spoilers of the book A Time For Mercy.


Even though I was in the middle of another book when Will presented me with this one, I dove in right away anyway. The story starts quite dramatically, with a young family (mom Josie and two young teens, Keira and Drew) terrified in their home. They live with the mother’s boyfriend, Stuart, and they can hear him coming in, drunk from his night out. This isn’t a new thing for Stu, and he often beats the family when he comes home like this. If they had anywhere else to go, they would. This night, he takes things much farther than he ever has before. Drew and Keira hear him beating Josie, but they lock themselves in Keira’s room out of sheer terror. When the noise from downstairs ceases, and the kids are fairly sure Stu has gone somewhere else for a while, they sneak down to the kitchen. The sight before them is nothing any child should ever have to see: their mother’s boyfriend has literally beaten her to death. Drew, age 16, makes his way to Stuart’s room and finds his gun, then shoots the man who killed his mother.

Keira calls 911 and the police and ambulance arrive at the residence. It turns out Josie isn’t dead after all, but Stuart certainly is. This, combined with the fact that Stu had already fallen into bed asleep, makes Drew’s assumption of self-defense a lot stickier. To make matters worse, Stuart Kofer was a well-respected sheriff’s deputy in town. Drew was unknown. So the dead man has a lot more friends than his killer, and in small town Mississippi, something like that can make or break a case.

No lawyer in the entirety of Ford County will touch the case with a 10-foot-pole. The judge finally forcibly assigns it to none other than Jake Brigance, the hero lawyer of A Time to Kill. After having been promised over and over again by the judge that the assignment is only temporary – just until he can get another lawyer to take the case – Jake reluctantly agrees. But of course, being the type of case it is (automatic death-penalty due to the fact that the victim was a cop), no one ever steps forward and Jake is stuck with it all the way through trial. After many twists and turns, including definitive proof that Stuart wasn’t the upstanding citizen he was assumed to have been, the case ends in a mistrial. This means that in some future, unwritten novel, young Drew will be forced to stand trial for this murder again.

My Thoughts

I was enthralled by this book from the very first page. I was so excited to have a fresh legal thriller from John Grisham that I had trouble putting the book down at night, no matter how tired I got. I was excited to see how that “definitive proof” I mentioned before (Stuart had been raping Keira and she was pregnant with his child) landed with the jury. As I read the book, I tried to see things from both sides, to be a juror on that case myself, and figure out how I’d vote. It was impossible.

And then I got to the end. The jurors in the novel agreed with me: it was impossible to decide whether to convict young Drew or not. On the one hand, he absolutely killed Stuart, a cop – mandatory death penalty. There was no question about that. On the other hand, it wasn’t like Stuart was innocent himself. But, as the prosecutors pointed out, Stuart wasn’t the one on trial. Drew was. But that didn’t persuade all of the jurors. They simply couldn’t agree, and the hung jury meant a mistrial. While I’m confident that was probably an accurate representation of what would have/could have happened if this was based on reality, I found it immensely unsatisfying in a novel. I wanted a more solid conclusion than that.

Despite that, I think Grisham stayed very true to his fictional Ford County, and it was good to see so many familiar characters seamlessly woven in with the new ones. If you don’t mind reading a book now that you know all the twists, I highly recommend A Time for Mercy.