Fiction. African American Fiction. Literature. HTML: "This majestic, moving novel is an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives."â??Chicago Tribune Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, A Lesson Before Dying is a deep and compassionate novel about a young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to visit a black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting. From the critically acclaimed author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
I rank this book among the best I have ever read. It will become
I first read it in March 1998; in May 2002 I recommended it to another book group with similar results.
And I read it again in Sept 2007 just because I love the work so much.
Highly recommend this work.
â€śMajesticâ€ť, â€śMovingâ€ť, â€śRichly Compassionateâ€ť 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 â€śseriously??â€ť â€“ 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. Thereâ€™s the vivacious cycle of the black men not getting ahead, running away, or becoming broken. Grant too is a conflicted man who canâ€™t decide to stay or go, and get this â€“ he hates teaching, but thatâ€™s all he can do as an educated man in the South. Thereâ€™s Grant and Vivian, where Vivian is in a separation with children, i.e. complex dependencies in the 1940â€™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 itâ€™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 â€“ a white man before his time in the South
Least Favorite Character: Too many to choose from, so letâ€™s say Grant.
On poverty and community:
Loaning Grant $10 with â€śHere.â€ť â€śâ€¦It was the kind of â€śhereâ€ť that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of â€śhereâ€ť that said she wished you had it and didnâ€™t have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then â€śhereâ€ť it was, with a kind of love. It was the kind of â€śhereâ€ť 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 â€śhereâ€ť? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man â€śhereâ€ť?â€ť
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.
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
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