On a spring afternoon in 1985 in Gary, Indiana, a fifteen-year-old girl kills an elderly woman in a violent home invasion. In a city with a history of racial tensions and white flight, the girl, Paula Cooper, is Black, and her victim, Ruth Pelke, is white and a beloved Bible teacher. When Paula is sentenced to death, no one decries the impending execution of a tenth grader. But the tide begins to shift when the victim's grandson Bill forgives the girl, against the wishes of his family, and campaigns to spare her life.
The author uses Cooper’s chilling case to explore larger issues of justice, retribution and forgiveness ... Seventy Times Seven is a bit overcrowded with characters. Many are compelling ... But Ms. Mar is needlessly detailed about others ... Overall, the author chronicles Cooper’s case with sensitivity and addresses challenges of juvenile punishment with insight. She recognizes the primal desire for retribution after violent crimes. But she weighs this impulse against the possibility of rehabilitation for juveniles.
Chilling ... A documentary filmmaker and former editor at Rolling Stone, Mar is also the author of Witches of America, a stunning work of participatory reportage and cultural anthropology. I found myself wanting more of that approach here. Instead, Mar relies upon a single, immediate vantage point. This lends itself to some highly cinematic scenes ... However, more often than not, the present-tense narration interferes with a reader’s understanding of the case, its players and the sequence of events. It also requires Mar to rely heavily on awkward transitions that can feel dislocating.
Some books are easy, reassuring reads: They offer self-improvement tips, reinforce our preconceptions or make even the most complicated matters seem simple. Alex Mar’s Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy is the opposite kind of book. It’s urgent, messy and unsettling. It isn’t a page-turner, exactly: It’s long and sprawling. But it’s a troubling, haunting read. You may not find yourself staying up late to finish it, but odds are, you’ll find yourself lying awake in the small hours, turning it over and over in your mind ... Seventy Times Seven tells multiple intertwined tales: There’s the tale of Paula’s crime and punishment; the tale of Ruth Pelke and her family; the tale of Gary’s boom-and-bust economy and its troubled racial politics ... More than anything, Seventy Times Seven is a book about the promise and limits of empathy ... Occasionally frustrating. Mar, a documentary filmmaker and former editor at Rolling Stone, has far too many stories to tell, and a more ruthless editor might have pushed her to eliminate several minor characters and trim some extraneous detail ... But these are minor flaws and don’t detract from the sheer power of the central stories. Seventy Times Seven gives readers an unflinching glimpse into brutality, pain, loneliness, rage and revenge, and asks if regret, compassion, mercy and forgiveness can be enough to bridge the gulfs of race, class and ideology that so often divide us. “Seventy Times Seven” is full of questions and painful ambiguities — and Mar is courageous enough to leave most of her questions unanswered.