A lesson before dying

by Ernest J. Gaines (Afterword)

Hardcover, 1993





New York : A. A. Knopf : Distribued by Random House, Inc., 1993.


From the author of, A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman comes a deep and compassionate novel. Grant Wiggins, a college-educated man returns to 1940s Cajun, he visits and forms an unlikely bond with Jefferson, a young Black man convicted of murder and sentenced to death, for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting. Best Books for Young Teen Readers. In the 1940s in rural Louisiana, an uneducated African American man is sentenced to die for a crime he was incapable of committing.

User reviews

LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
This book is sweet, short, and engaging. It's something you can read in one sitting, and will find hard to put down. It covers everything from civil rights to identity and history and crime, but with such a simple and straightforward style that you won't realize how much you're thinking about it until long after the story is over. Highly recommended for any reader.… (more)
LibraryThing member EBT1002
Beautifully brutal, brutally beautiful. I read this novel for a TIOLI challenge; it's from the syllabus of a "Multicultural American Lit" class being taught at Eastern Illinois University this semester. Jefferson, a Black man who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, ends up sentenced to death in Jim Crow (1948) Louisiana. Grant Wiggins is sent by his aunt and Jefferson's godmother to try to help Jefferson become a man before he dies (as well as possibly save his soul). Grant's love for his aunt and his respect for Miss Emma (Jefferson's godmother) lead him to visit Jefferson in jail and try to help him gain some dignity. The novel is really about Grant's own anguished exploration of what it means to be a Black man in a time and place where the behavioral expectations are completely focused on erasing any shred of self-determination and dignity he might otherwise have, as much as it's about Jefferson's transformation from a silent, self-loathing, self-pitying man to one with self-respect and a paradoxical sense of hope even as he faces his own death. The novel packs an emotional punch and I couldn't put it down. It's worth reading more than once.… (more)
LibraryThing member cestovatela
This is my favorite kind of book: one that asks lots of questions and gives no easy answers. Set in the South in the 1950s, it tells the story of Jefferson, a black man convicted of killing a white bartender and sentenced to die. Determined to see her boy die with dignity, Jefferson's godmother calls in Grant, the local school teacher, to "make him a man." But Grant has his own problems. As an educated African American man, he has few opportunities in this isolated part of the Southern United States. He longs to make a life for himself somewhere else but feels trapped in his hometown. Reluctantly, he accepts the mission of visiting Jefferson in prison before the execution. As the narrative unfolds, we begin to realize that becoming a "man" isn't necessarily the same thing as becoming educated, and that Grant needs saving just as much as Jefferson.

Initially, I found the story a bit slow moving. The endless debates about whether Grant would visit Jefferson wore on me, and I was confused by the dense web of familial relations in the book's small town setting. Yet, even in these slow, early parts of the novel, the book's nuanced portrait of racism kept me reading. Stories about racism are wide-spread in our society, but this one portrayed the day-to-day experience of oppression in a more detailed and resonant way than I had previously encountered. The book also offers intriguing insight into how African-American culture imbibed some of whites' racist ideals, such as when a light-skinned African-American school teacher is shunned by her family for marrying a darker skinned man. Although the book's climatic scene feels a little contrived, the slow resolution afterward more than makes up for it. The ending is pretty open, but I liked that - it gave me lots of room to think.
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LibraryThing member ginger72
An extremely slooow but ok read. For some reason I had a hard time getting into the book and I definitely didn't feel anything for the characters.I take that back, I did feel some annoyance towards Mr. Wiggins. Yet I kept continuing on because despite all that was wrong I needed to know what happened. Not disappointed that I read the book but not a 5 star "must read" either.… (more)
LibraryThing member rainpebble
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines; (4 1/2*)

A Lesson Before Dying is set in a small town during the 1940s. It is the story of two black men; one wrongly accused of murder and the other convinced by family to share knowledge and pride with the accused during his last days before being executed. It is a wonderful story about the friendship created between two black men in a racially charged society.
Grant Wiggins has returned to his home town to teach children in a village school and while he is in the process of making his own life changing decision, his aunt & the convicted man's grandmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in jail. With all of his own problems in mind he visits and attempts to help Jefferson. During the story the author shows the many difficulties and problems that Grant faces as a black man and the author expresses this in the novel through Grant's thoughts.
The weekly visits give Grant a chance to share some knowledge with Jefferson but he is also reluctant to get involved in a situation he has no control over nor any patience for. His aunt and Jefferson's grandmother have coerced him to go but he doesn't realize how much this will help him. He is taken through his midlife crisis partly by the experience and views on life he received from Jefferson. So he gains as well as gives.
The plot of this story revolves around the two main characters who are completely different in every way but who come together because of family ties. The novel is a great story about life's struggles and the problems that we all go through in day to day living. It conveys morals, values and a sense of humanity that are noble and should be used by all of us in life.
Gaines creates a setting of cruelty and prejudice throughout the events in the story and despite this the two men forge a bond and together find a way to overcome the power of racism in their lives. Without each other they would not be able to cope with the events of their lives.
I very highly recommend this book to every reader out there.
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LibraryThing member varwenea
The premise of this book is promising. 21 year old Jefferson in 1940’s Louisiana town was in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in a botched up robbery, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. Mocked as being no better than a hog, his godmother, Emma, convinces Grant Wiggins, the local teacher, to visit him in jail and teach him to be a man before dying. From Emma, “I don’t want them to kill no hog. I want a man to go that chair, on his own two feet.” From Grant: “…What do I say to him? Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?”

“Majestic”, “Moving”, “Richly Compassionate” are some of the words used in the published reviews of this book. I was ready with tissues and be walloped by a flood of emotions from this tragic tale. Instead, I was “seriously??” – with one lifted eyebrow. Jefferson is due to be electrocuted in weeks, and Grant, his reluctant teacher, is worried about his performance in bed! I suppose it is kinda hard (or perhaps limp) to make sweet loving with an image of an anger-filled, in-pain boy occupying your mind. Argh, I wanted to punch him. Where is Atticus Finch when I need him?!? I was already thinking the book flowed less inspiring than anticipated when that silly plot line came into play. Why, oh, why?

So, what went wrong? I felt Gaines covered too many topics without covering anything in depth. There’s the vivacious cycle of the black men not getting ahead, running away, or becoming broken. Grant too is a conflicted man who can’t decide to stay or go, and get this – he hates teaching, but that’s all he can do as an educated man in the South. There’s Grant and Vivian, where Vivian is in a separation with children, i.e. complex dependencies in the 1940’s. The entire town is religious vs. atheist Grant. Etc., etc. With all this hoopla, the book has limited pages on the actual interactions between Jefferson and Grant. When Jefferson turns the corner, it was too easy. Grant inserted some elements of understanding/friendship to Jefferson and later shared his own vulnerability; that was really it. Add the prerequisite cast of bigoted characters and more sub-plotlines, bunch of guilt-flinging women, a jealous Reverend Ambrose, and it’s a crock pot of unlikeable characters in a ho-hum novel. Sorry Oprah, I call B.S.

Favorite Character: Paul Bonin, the young deputy at the jail – a white man before his time in the South
Least Favorite Character: Too many to choose from, so let’s say Grant.

One Quote:

On poverty and community:
Loaning Grant $10 with “Here.” “…It was the kind of “here” that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of “here” that said she wished you had it and didn’t have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then “here” it was, with a kind of love. It was the kind of “here” that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs “here”? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man “here”?”
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LibraryThing member DLayton
A compelling look at the life of a man and the decisions he makes. A teacher tries to impart a sense of dignity to a man on death row, but in turn learns a lot about being a man through the relationship he establishes with the sentenced man. The book is emotionally charged. I loved it.
LibraryThing member Moniica
Set in America during highly racist times, a young black man called Jefferson is in the wrong place at the wrong time, when he is the only one caught at a shooting in a bar. When Jefferson is sentenced with death, his grandma persuades school-teacher Grant Wiggins to convince Jefferson that despite what he was called by the white authority, he is indeed not a hog, and does have pride.
I thought this story had a very weak plot. It was very slowly written and did not make any huge impact on me.
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LibraryThing member realbigcat
I read this book most likely on the Oprahs book club recommendation. I did very much enjoy it and it was a quick read. The plot is somewhat overused. A poor black in the wrong place at the wrong time and ensa up with the death penalty. A teacher is asked to give the boy some lessons before the execution. Not a fantastic book but worth the read.… (more)
LibraryThing member sean.r
Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying (1993) poses one of the most universal questions literature can ask: Knowing we're going to die, how should we live? It's the story of an uneducated young black man named Jefferson, accused of the murder of a white storekeeper, and Grant Wiggins, a college-educated native son of Louisiana, who teaches at a plantation school. In a little more than 250 pages, these two men named for presidents discover a friendship that transforms at least two lives.

In the first chapter, the court-appointed lawyer's idea of a legal strategy for Jefferson is to argue, "Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." This dehumanizing and unsurprisingly doomed defense rankles the condemned man's grief-stricken godmother, Miss Emma, and Grant's aunt, Tante Lou. They convince an unwilling Grant to spend time with Jefferson in his prison cell, so that he might confront death with his head held high.

Most of the novel's violence happens offstage in the first and last chapters. Vital secondary characters punctuate the narrative, including Vivian, Grant's assertive yet patient Creole girlfriend; Reverend Ambrose, a minister whom the disbelieving Grant ultimately comes to respect; and Paul, a white deputy who stands with Jefferson when Grant cannot.

White, black, mulatto, Cajun, or Creole; rich, poor, or hanging on; young, old, or running out of time-around all these people, Gaines crafts a story of intimacy and depth. He re-creates the smells of Miss Emma's fried chicken, the sounds of the blues from Jefferson's radio, the taste of the sugarcane from the plantation. The school, the parish church, the town bar, and the jailhouse all come alive with indelible vividness.

In the tradition of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966), Gaines uses a capital case to explore the nobility and the barbarism of which human beings are equally capable. The story builds inexorably to Jefferson's ultimate bid for dignity, both in his prison diary and at the hour of his execution. That Ernest J. Gaines wrings a hopeful ending out of such grim material only testifies to his prodigious gifts as a storyteller.
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LibraryThing member Whicker
This is a book that has suffered from being over-hyped. The story was interesting and set up well in the first 180 pages or so. However, as it ended only 70 pages later, it felt incredibly rushed, like the author had a mandatory cap on length, or was simply lazy. The gravity of the plot deserved more than it was given, and the characters changed drastically without much explanation. I was left very disappointed by this book and would not recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member keely_chace
To me, this was just okay. Not bad, just okay, and that probably has to do with the lens through which we see this story unfold. The protagonist and narrator, Grant the teacher, was just such a flawed and drifting sort of character that I found it hard to like him or take much of an interest in his internal struggles.
LibraryThing member piefuchs
A tale of racism and the death penalty in the deep south. The narrator, a teacher, struggles with his decision to stay in his racist home town and support his aunt and her best friend as the latter's god son is put to death for a crime he did not commit. The narrator, a confused man who is learning the depth of his flaws, is altered by the experience of helping another man face death. A fast read in which most of the characters are multi dimensional. The story draws you in, is a quick read, and makes you think - but for me it failed to attain greatness and I found the writing itself a little weak.… (more)
LibraryThing member cajunbear
A great Louisiana, American, African-American author... This book will touch you. Set in the segregated south, it is awesome in displaying humanity in all of its forms...
LibraryThing member CutestLilBookworm
This book touched me deeply and actually moved me to tears. I listened to the audio version, and was impressed by the readers ability to effectively imitate that old southern drawl; altered ever so subtlety depending on the character. It really heightened my ability to visualize the characters, place and time. The story itself, touched on so many aspects of the human condition for that time period, yet many of the concepts remain relevant today. Teacher Wiggins, flawed as he was imparted a lesson to Jefferson about being a man, having empathy, and putting others first--all traits he himself desperately wanted to build upon in himself. It tells of his internal struggle, and the intense reciprocity of he and Jefferson's relationship. Short as this story was, I find it did not need to be much longer. It did not belabor the issue or become overly philosophical. It cut straight to the chase, moved quickly and offered an in-depth snapshot of the behaviors, beliefs, and customs of that particular point in time. Excellent book on a number of levels.… (more)
LibraryThing member belgrade18
Beautifully written and insightful- many sides of rural Southern life and race relations I hadn't thought of before. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed. I thought the protagonist was a terrible teacher- quite cruel and unhelpful to the children in his class- and I was hoping we would see that he came to his senses about that- but it wasn't clear. It was also a little hard to believe that Jefferson so easily managed to unburden himself by writing down his thoughts- sounds more like a writer's fantasy rather than a realistic possibility.… (more)
LibraryThing member crimson-tide
A very powerful, incredibly moving story; full of dignity and compassion, and with a wonderful sense of place.
LibraryThing member jonesm
My sons had to read this book for summer reading. I did not read it at the time, but read it maybe a year ago. It is a good read, especially when you understand the lesson that Jefferson was so passionate about was that he was a man not a hog.
LibraryThing member annaflbak
Have read this a few times; finally decided I needed my own copy. This should be required reading. I haven't read all Gaines' books, but admire the ones I have.
LibraryThing member jesnikula
A thought-provoking story of two men who are each faced with difficult choices about living. Although the story starts out a little slow, it is an easy read, and picks up once the conflict is revealed. The story is filled with raw-emotion and blatant discrimination, which allows the reader to empathize with the characters.
LibraryThing member mrsdwilliams
Set in the fictional town of Bayonne, Louisiana in the late 1940s. Two African American men, proundly different, are both struggling to be men in a racist society.

Uneducated Jefferson witnesses the murder of a white storekeeper during a robbery. The perpetrators are also killed, and Jefferson is put on trial for murder. In Jefferson's defense, his lawyer says not that Jefferson is innocent, but that killing him would be like slaughtering a hog. The all white jury is not swayed by this argument and sentences him to death in the electric chair.

Jefferson's godmother, who raised him, asks a black school teacher, Grant Wiggins, to visit Jefferson in jail and help him to face his death with dignity.

Grant longs to leave the South and is unwilling to take his task seriously. He really doesn't believe it will make a difference. After all, though he is well-educated, he still feels bound and limited by the same racist attitudes that resulted in Jefferson's conviction and death sentence. Eventually, however, the two men form a bond that transforms them both.

Heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. A MUST READ.
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LibraryThing member jaseD
Another book that moved me. Even in adversity the human spirit and friendship is still powerful.
LibraryThing member kayceel
Excellent and very unsettling, I was reluctant to read this at first. (Read it for a personal book club)

I am glad I read this, and *really* wish I had been able to make it to the discussion! really makes one question faith, what it means to be "human," racism, freedom, and our nation's ugly history of slavery and inequality.

Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member mesalamb
This is one of those books that you keep thinking about long after you finish it. Most people have a strong opinion as to whether or not they approve of the death penalty, but this really puts a face on it. Its no longer a question of abstractly saying that someone who murders someone else should be put to death. This makes it human and makes you think about what it really means to sentence someone to death. It must have been torture for Jefferson to be sitting in cell, first not knowing how much time he had left and then to know the exact date and time his life was going to end. People aren't supposed to know when they are going to die. And on top of all that, to sentence a man who was innocent. I also thought the description of the racial tensions and disparities in the south during this time period were very though-provoking. Grant was a good strong character who was divided by what he wanted to be and what he had to be. Good story all around.… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This is a very inspirational book. I recently saw a reading of a stage adaptation and it did not lose its emotional power. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting. Each must learn a lot about himself. The teacher, Grant Wiggins, believes that he must get away from that town, that country, as soon as possible.
"I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be..."
But he is coerced into visiting the young prisoner, Jefferson, who is confined by the law to an iron-barred cell. Jefferson's grandmother, Miss Emma, begs Grant for one last favor: to teach her grandson to die like a man. As Grant and Jefferson meet and talk they begin to realize the nature of the bonds that hold them and how, perhaps they can both learn about themselves. This is a book of inspiration for those who read and believe in the power of words. But it is also a testament to the belief that you can choose to cause your own change.
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