In our latest Notable Narrative, “Hannah and Andrew,” Pamela Colloff recounts the story of a child and his adoptive mother, who was convicted of killing him by forcing him to eat salt.

At more than 12,000 words, Colloff’s narrative – which ran in the January issue of Texas Monthly – unfolds largely as straight chronology. It reads cleanly, with each section focused on a single piece of the story. But the reader can feel thousands of pages of documents lurking in the background, leaving a psychic trail on the page even as Colloff compresses events for readers.

We find out that the boy, Andrew,would have had to eat 23 teaspoons of Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning or 6 teaspoons of table salt to hit the lethal level. We learn about the amount of water in his stomach, which has implications for what happened in the hours before he received medical attention.

But along with information that seems to exonerate Hannah, Colloff also delivers the specifics of her delay in getting Andrew to an emergency clinic. Describing the trial, she writes that “just as the prosecution could not show exactly how Hannah had forced Andrew to ingest a lethal dose of salt, neither could the defense give precise details for how the four-year-old had come to have so much sodium in his body.”

This journalistic restraint matters. Colloff shows that it is possible to create tremendous emotional engagement while giving readers enough information to interpret events for themselves.

She doesn’t seem interested in presenting a story of angels or demons, but writes on a plane where humans, often with unknowable motives, act. How do we evaluate those actions with imperfect information? Colloff suggests that the way we answer that question makes a difference. On the heels of a 2010 story that helped secure a man’s release from prison, she presents another problematic conviction, asking whether justice has really been served.

For more on this story, read our Q&A with Pamela Colloff.

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