Monday, March 12, 2007

A Gathering of Old Men

In A Gathering of Old Men Ernest J. Gaines gives us a story of redemption, a tale in which more than a dozen old black men who grew up in rural Louisiana during the worst of the Jim Crow years finally find the courage and the will to stand together with dignity against a culture that had deprived them of their very manhood. Gaines himself was born on a plantation near New Roads, Louisiana, in 1933 and picked cotton in the plantation fields before he left Louisiana at age 15 to be with his parents who had moved to California. He never forgot Louisiana, eventually returning to the area as a University of Southwestern Louisiana professor and writer in residence, and made it the subject of his novels, stories and essays.

In the novel, Candy, a white woman who lost her parents as a child, was raised as much by Mathu, a black man employed on the plantation as she was by the white family who owned it. When she discovered a white man shot to death in front of Mathu’s house, her love for Mathu and her determination to protect him immediately suggested a plan to her. She will confess to the killing. And she will round up as many of Mathu’s old black friends as can be quickly gathered and will have them do the same thing. When Sheriff Mapes arrives on the scene and wants to take Mathu to the town jail he finds a group of elderly black men who are equally determined to confess to the murder in the face of any physical or mental intimidation that Mapes throws at them. The confrontation between this white lawman and these elderly black men has given the old men what they see as their one last chance to die as men rather than as the cowards they suddenly consider themselves to have been for their whole lives.

Gaines tells his story through the first person accounts of its main characters. It proceeds in straight chronological order, but as seen through the eyes of the various men and women intimately involved in what happened during the half a day that changed all of their lives forever. In the process, the reader gains a clear understanding of how society has formed each of these characters and what it is that motivates them to take a stand at this point in their lives regardless of what the consequences may be. A Gathering of Old Men packs numerous lessons and observations into what at first glance appears to be a simple story of just over 200 pages and proves what a fine novelist Ernest Gaines is.

Rated at: 5.0

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