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.
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.
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.
“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.
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”?”
I thought this story had a very weak plot. It was very slowly written and did not make any huge impact on me.
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.
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.
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.
"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.