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Kirkus Review

AT THE CENTER Retired professor and social worker Van Soest once again tackles tough social justice issues through fiction in her second novel (Just Mercy, 2014).

Seven-year-old Native American Anthony Little Eagle dies just days after being placed in the home of Linda and Paul Mellon, a white couple with years of experience as foster parents. Renowned investigative reporter J.B. Harrell doubts that his death is an accident, as the police claim, and demands a meeting with Sylvia Jensen, a social work supervisor. Initially convinced that Anthony’s death was nothing more than a tragic mishap, Sylvia becomes suspicious when the health services department’s attorney blocks her access to the case file, and concerned when she learns that Anthony’s assigned social worker didn’t follow protocol. Putting her 30-year career at risk, she teams up with J.B. to uncover what really happened to the little boy. Meanwhile, Sylvia’s relatively newfound sobriety is in danger as she confronts hardened criminals, disturbing revelations, and her own demons. The novel also tells the 30-year-old story of Jamie, a young Native American who was forced to leave his white foster family and return to his biological one. Van Soest’s parallel tales help readers confront issues of ethnicity and culture in adoption and foster parenting, as well as better understand the overburdened social services industry, which can’t always provide individualized attention. As Sylvia and J.B. go from initial animosity to grudging camaraderie and finally friendship, their bond becomes much deeper and long-term than they expected. The author changes points of view and time periods to keep the story moving and build suspense, and her novel reflects upon its events without overt bias. Despite the weighty happenings, however, Van Soest still carves out a happy ending.

A provocative, thoughtful, and entertaining story about crucial social issues and believable, realistic situations.

Just Mercy Review from


“Reviewed by Heather Osborne for Readers’ Favorite

Just Mercy by Dorothy Van Soest is a novel about one woman’s personal struggle to overcome the murder of her daughter. Bernadette Baker has been waiting many years to see the woman who brutally murdered her youngest daughter, Veronica, brought to justice. After trials, appeals, and waiting, Raelynn Blackwell is going to be executed for her crime. Yet, with a stay of execution, Bernadette finds herself thrown into a journey of self-discovery, and learning how far a person can go to find forgiveness. After a program where she has the chance to confront Raelynn for her crime, Bernadette feels she has to seek out the offender’s mother, trying to make peace between the neglectful mother and incarcerated daughter. However, when a shocking fact comes to light, will Bernadette still feel the same about seeing Raelynn put to death for her crimes?

I have always been one to appreciate a well-researched novel, and Just Mercy is certainly that. Miss Soest has taken the time to really explore the many faceted sides of the legal system, and how each individual person is impacted by a crime. Just Mercy has an excellent flow, and the story kept my attention from page one. My heart broke for Bernadette and her family. I work with victims of crime, and I can say from experience that how each of her family members felt about the execution is a fair representation of what families of victims go through. I admired Bernadette as a character and found her very realistic. Just Mercy by Dorothy Van Soest is an excellent novel, well worth the read for anyone faced with a difficult decision in their path, and desiring the strength to overcome it and find peace.

Read more here:


At the Center combines Van Soest’s depiction of a world that she, as a social worker and professor, is intimately familiar with, and all the ingredients of an exciting mystery novel. – Readers’ Favorite, Five Stars Review

Imagine a soft-boiled twist on detective Sam Spade as a liberal alcoholic female social worker and you’ll begin to get a sense of the originality of Sylvia Jensen, the dysfunctionally unstoppable protagonist of Dorothy Van Soest’s new novel At the Center. With moments of heart-pounding tension and others of heartbreaking poignancy, the tale follows Jensen’s guilt-ridden mission to expose and right the terrible injustices of a child-welfare system more concerned with self-protection than protecting the children under its care—who are turning up dead. The fast-moving plot and sharply drawn political and moral conflicts grabbed me by the heart and dragged me through to its surprising conclusion.
—Shawn Lawrence Otto, award-winning author of Sins of Our Fathers

The violent death of a small child and plight of innocents enmeshed in a broken foster care system set the stage for this bold page-turner. Through rich, complex characters and compelling
storyline, the author binds us in themes that raise our hackles, break our hearts and has us cheering for the flawed heroine whose search for hope and justice crisscrosses five generations. If you’re a reader who demands substance and depth with great storytelling, don’t miss this one. It kept me awake for three nights so plan your days accordingly.
—Hal Zina Bennett, bestselling author of Write From the Heart: Unleashing the Power of Your Creativity

At the Center is an engaging read that had me guessing until the end. Dorothy Van Soest has managed to take a very complex and emotionally charged set of issues and weave them into a story that honors the real lives of people touched, and sometimes mauled, by the child welfare system.
—Terry Cross, Director, National Indian Child Welfare Association

At the Center grabs your heart early as it leads you on the never-ending cultural clash that exists in our country. You will not want to set this book down until you have read it to the end.
—Roy I. Rochon Wilson, Honorary Chief and Spiritual Leader, Cowlitz Indian Tribe
At the Center is a mystery novel that completely engages you as it weaves and resolves a set of facts and intertwining stories. As a lifetime social worker, I know that foster care is a mystery to nearly everyone outside the system. Dorothy Van Soest does a beautiful job of illuminating policy and practice issues that effect abused and neglected children and their families. Readers will come to understand some of the complex factors in child protection as the mystery unfolds.
—Janis Avery, CEO, Treehouse

No stranger to the child welfare system, Van Soest has written a page-turner that weaves many important themes into a novel that sometimes reads like an expose. The system is flawed, but the author manages to capture different points of view in an engaging and interesting saga.
—Pamela Lowell, LICSW, Author, Returnable Girl and Spotting for Nellie

Van Soest’s experience as a writer, social worker, political activist and university professor come together in At the Center to plunge you into the underpinnings of a broken system. Her familiarity with the complex system of child protection, foster care and adoption, as well as the legal issues involved in the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), is apparent in the way she has crafted a mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end. For me, as a social worker who has worked in child protection and trained staff on the legal requirements of ICWA, At the Center was a heartbreaking read. As an avid fan of mysteries, I could not put the book down until I had finished the very last page!
—Yvonne Chase, PhD, LCSW, University of Alaska Anchorage

At the Center, a bold and courageous novel that tackles the difficult issues confronting the child welfare system, speaks in considerable depth to the question of “what is in the best interest of a child” and how that plays out in the context of a native child. It is told through the voice of a tired social worker that carries considerable trauma from her years of social work practice. She joins an investigative journalist to expose the facts of a child’s death and in the process finds inner peace and purpose. In the telling of the story, Dorothy Van Soest brings to life characters that have depth, compassion, human failings and values, in a masterful way. This is a very good read.
—Uma Ahluwalia, Child Welfare Professional

At The Center is a compelling and multi-layered page-turner. Through her story revolving around a Native American child caught in the foster care system, Van Soest manages to entertain as she enlightens on how culture, history, identity and institutions interact in often-tragic ways.
—Robin DiAngelo, author, What Does it Mean to Be White: Developing White Racial Literacy

At the Center provides valuable insights into an important area of child welfare practice-American Indian child welfare (ICWA). This mystery novel illuminates some of the influences that impact worker’s decisions and relays the complex, multi-layered effects of removing Indian children from their families and communities. While not providing any answers, the engrossing stories of two American Indian boys will get you thinking.
—Priscilla Day, Department Chair, Social Work and Director, Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies, and Anne Tellett, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work, University of Minnesota Duluth

At the Center is a mystery novel filled with drama and surprises that make it impossible to put down. The interconnected stories of two American Indian boys provide one of the most powerful portrayals of the intricacies of the child welfare system that I have ever seen. This is a must read book for child welfare practitioners, students, educators, and just anyone interested in a powerful story of family relationships. – Ruth McRoy, Professor, Boston College School of Social Work

Book Club Discussion Guide, Just Mercy

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What is the significance of the novel’s title, Just Mercy? Discuss its possible different meanings and why you think the author selected this title.
2. In chapter one, the murderer presses the sharp point of the knife into the tip of each of her fingers. What do you think is the significance of this symbolism?
3. How do the personalities and perspectives of members of the Baker family impact how they face Veronica’s death and Raelynn Blackwell’s punishment? What holds them together in spite of their differences?
4. With which character(s) did you feel the most sympathy and connection? How did your opinions or feelings about them change as the story unfolded?
5. Bernadette seems driven, to the point of compulsivity at times. What do you think motivates her?
6. How would you characterize the relationship between Fin and Annamaria? How does it compare to their relationship with their murdered sister, Veronica?
7. How does the shifting point-of-view allow the reader numerous opportunities to understand members of the Baker family?
8. What are your feelings about Raelynn Blackwell? Do they change and, if so, how?
9. Each of the characters in Just Mercy made a choice or took a position that had moral implications. Would you have made the same decision? Why? Why not?
10. Did your notion of what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?
11. How does the setting of Texas figure into the book? Is the setting a character? Does it come to life? Did you feel you were experiencing the time and place in which the book was set?
12. Right after witnessing Raelynn’s execution, Bernadette whispered: “You got her body, but you never got her soul.” What do you think she meant by that?
13. Is the plot engaging—does the story interest you? Were you surprised by the plot’s complications?
14. What main ideas—themes—does the author explore? What do you think is the main theme?
15. Is the ending satisfying? If so, why? If not, why not . . . and how would you change it?


For More Information about the Death Penalty

Death Penalty Information Center:

Murder Victims Families for Human Rights:

Prejean, Sister Helen. Dead Man Walking. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty:!


For More Information about Restorative Dialogue and Restorative Justice

Being with the Energy of Love and Forgiveness, A Film:

Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking, University of Minnesota:

The Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue, The University of Texas at

Parents of Murdered Children:

Umbreit, Mark. Dancing With the Energy of Conflict and Trauma: Letting Go, Finding Peace in
Families, Communities & Nations. CreateSpace Independent

At the Center: A Book Club and Readers’ Guide

Book Club Questions and Topics

1. What is the significance of the novel’s title, At the Center? Discuss possible meanings and why you think the author selected this title.

2. With which characters did you feel the most sympathy and connection? Why? How did your opinions and feelings about them change as the story unfolded?

3. Both Sylvia Jensen and Mary Williams seem driven, to the point of compulsiveness and even self-deception. What is it that motivates them?

4. How would you characterize the relationship between Sylvia Jensen and J. B. Harrell? How does it change as the story progresses? How would you characterize it at the end?

5. What are your feelings about Jamie Buckley? How do they change as the story unfolds?

6. Each of the main characters in At the Center make choices or take actions that have moral and ethical implications. Which decisions would you have made? Which would you have made differently? Why? Did your notion about what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?

7. Were you surprised by the plot? Was the ending satisfying? If so, why? If not, why not? How would you change it?

8. What main ideas and issues does the author explore? What do you think was the main theme?

Discussion Questions for Graduate and Undergraduate Students and Helping Professionals

1. Early in their relationship, Sylvia asks J. B., “Why don’t you want to be an Indian?” and he responds, “Why do you want to be one?” In 1972, Mary Williams confronts the school principal’s stereotypes about Jamie by insisting that he’s “just like any other little boy.” Discuss different ways that the concepts of racial identity development and cultural competence are played out in At the Center.

2. What are the similarities and differences between the two time periods in the story, 1972 and 2005, particularly in regard to the relationship between white Americans and American Indians?

3. What were some of the failings in the child welfare system in regard to Anthony Little Eagle’s death? How might an agency respond in a positive way when there is a tragedy like this one? How can administrators help social workers and supervisors? What supports and training should be put in place? What support is needed by foster families in regard to accidents and deaths?

4. Jamie Buckley was placed in foster care in 1972, before the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed. Anthony Little Eagle was placed in foster care in 2005, after the law had been in place for seventeen years. Discuss the intent of the ICWA and how it might have helped the two boys. What cultural issues need to be understood and addressed before children are placed in foster homes? How have other foster care and child welfare laws, poli- cies, and procedures changed from 1972 to 2005? What changes are needed now?

5. In what ways did Sylvia Jensen (2005) and Mrs. Waters (1972) uphold and/or violate the values and ethics of the social work profession? Do you think any of their actions were justified, and, if so, why? Discuss the conflicts faced by the social workers in At the Center. How do you think they handled these conflicts? How do you think they should have handled them?

Further Resources

Child Welfare/Foster Care

Child Welfare League of America

Children’s Rights

National Indian Child Welfare Association

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978

Racial Identity Development/Cultural Competence

A summary of racial identity models from Jeff Mio, professor of psychology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

A cultural competence continuum, by Terry Cross, MSW voices-of-professionals/cultural-competence-continuum/

DiAngelo, Robin.What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2012. A useful book for whites who want to be more than well-intentioned.

Duran, Eduardo and Bonnie Duran. Native American Postcolonial Psychology. State University of New York Press, 1995. A book that shows the necessity of understanding intergenerational trauma and internalized oppression in order to understand Native Americans today.

Helms, Janet E. A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Living as a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life. 2nd ed. Framingham, MA: Microtraining Associates, 2007.

Horse, Perry G. “Twenty-First Century Native American Consciousness: A Thematic Model of Indian Identity.” In New Perspectives on Racial Identity Development: Integrating Emerging Frameworks, edited by Charmaine L. Wijeyesinghe and Bailey W. Jackson. 2nd ed. New York University Press, 2012.

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