The Last Execution (Hardcover)
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 9781481429658, 144pp.
Publication Date: March 22, 2016
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On February 22, 1853, a fifteen-year-old Niels Nelson is prepared to be executed on Gallows Hill.
The master carpenter comes to measure Niels for his coffin.
The master baker bakes bread for the spectators.
The messenger posts the notice of execution in the town square.
The poet prepares his best pen to record the events as they unfold.
A fly, Niels’s only companion in the cell, buzzes.
A dog hovers by his young master’s window.
A young girl hovers too, pitying the boy.
The executioner sharpens his blade.
This remarkable, wrenching story is told with the alternating perspectives of eleven different bystanders—one per hour—as the clock ticks ever closer to the moment when the boy must face his fate. Niels Nielson, a young peasant, was sentenced to death by beheading on the dubious charges of arson and murder. Does he have the right to live despite what he is accused of? That is the question the townsfolk ask as the countdown begins. With strong social conscience, piercing intellect, and masterful storytelling, Jesper Wung-Sung explores the age-old question: who determines who has the right to live or die?
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Praise For The Last Execution…
— Booklist STARRED review
In the hours beforehis 1853 public execution, both the young Dane slated to die and variouscommunity members reflect on the nature of the punishment, highlighting thesocial, ethical, and even economic impacts of such displays. With only hoursleft to live, 15-year-old Niels' final reflections are so strangely calm, sodevoid of anger and fear, that readers may at first assume his acceptancesignifies guilt. However, the gentle lyricism with which he recalls the love heshared with his father—in spite of their homelessness and desperate fears ofworkhouse imprisonment—becomes a powerfully stark reminder of the brutality ofhis current situation. And while readers understand that his role in thesheriff's son's death is undeniable, the carefully paced reveals of thespecific circumstances leading up to the fatal incident ultimately suggestNiels' greatest crime might simply have been poverty. Interrupting Niels'reflections are chapters showcasing the townspeople, who primarily demonstratecondemnation of Niels but also curiosity, occasionally sorrow, and evenexcitement about the very public spectacle of his gruesome death. Thesevignettes effectively suggest that the town's quest for justice and closurehas, in reality, turned many citizens into beings far more monstrous than Nielshimself. Altogether, it's an incredibly moving, harrowing, andthought-provoking look at the historical connections between poverty andinjustice, made all the more frightening because of the novel's relevance tocurrent social issues. Brilliantly devastating. (Historical fiction. 14 &up)
— Kirkus, STARRED REVIEW
This fictionalization of the tragic life of Niels Nelson, 15, who was executed for arson and murder in Denmark in 1853, is startlingly grim. Before being convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Niels lives a marginal existence with his homeless and ailing father. When authorities drag Dad to a poorhouse, he urges Niels to run—so he does. But survival is even tougher alone, leading to a barn fire and a wrongful accusation of arson. The murder charge, however, is true: Niels admits that, in a rage, he killed a sheriff’s son with a rock, although not intentionally. Each chapter alternates perspectives from different characters in the village; the hands of a clock move an hour closer to execution in each successive chapter heading. Trapped in his cell, Niels befriends a fly—who sympathizes with the teen—but who is, after all, just a fly. Gallows Hill, the location of the execution, is in the author’s hometown of Svendborg, Denmark, in the neighborhood of his sons’ school: a chilly reminder of a painful history. VERDICT There may be a place for this short novel in a discussion about capital punishment.
— School Library Journal
This relentlessly bleak Danish import imagines the last day of a real-life execution victim, the last (in 1853) to suffer that fate in the town of Svendborg, Denmark. Various townspeople cross his path—the messenger who posts the execution notices for the public event, the priest charged with extracting a final confession, the carpenter who measures him for a coffin—and their unsettled observations are brief windows into the world that led the fifteen-year-old boy to his crime (murdering the sheriff’s young son) and his fate. Each views the tragedy through the filter of his own self-interest: the baker gripes that the mayor won’t let him raise the price of bread (starving the poor, he believes, would be a cheaper way to execute criminals), while the poet attempting to set the boy’s final moments to verse hopes to find romance at the event. Alongside the boy’s interspersed memories of poverty, rejection, flight, loss, and finally rage, these sections reveal a society in which his fate is unremarkable and all the more tragic for it. There are some odd anachronisms in the translation (an impatient character wishes the executioner would “cut to the chase”), but all in all, the spare, detached narration suits the subject. Rich with symbolism, historical criticism, and contemporary resonance, this is an unflinching portrait of the barbarism of execution and the collective apathy of observers that the practice inspires.
— The Horn Book
This brief, philosophical novel explores the final public execution in Svendborg, Denmark in 1853 through various perspectives, allowing for a slow build of opinions and cultural leanings that come together to show a moment in history. The book moves through the final hours of the life of fifteen-year-old Niels, who is quietly facing his fate, focusing on his love for the father who tried all his life to keep him and his son safe and fed despite their homelessness. The story then includes narration by the baker (who will make quite a profit this day), the mayor (who is weary of his job, particularly parts like this), and even a fly who Niels imagines wants to be a companion and comfort in his cell. The author wisely dispenses with the facts pretty quickly, allowing for the circumstances of Niels’ life to be the true focus, showing incontrovertibly how his death will be the only actual intended murder taking place. Teens tapped into the national discourse on capital punishment will doubtless find this intriguing discussion fodder, but regardless of their opinion on the death penalty, all will likely be haunted by defeated, damaged Niels who deserved so much better than an axe above his neck in front of those who judge him without any sympathy or context. The popular Danish author of this import (originally published in 2010) explains the background and provides a note about what the area looks like now.