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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Lesson Before Dying


A Lesson Before Dying is the best known Ernest J. Gaines novel, even having been blessed as an “Oprah’s Book Club” choice in September 1997. Today it is read in many middle and high school English classes for the lessons that it has to teach all of us about human dignity and grace. Not all of Oprah Winfrey’s book choices over the years have been the wisest, but she got this one right.

The novel is set in a section of 1940s Louisiana that Gaines knows and works so well in his writing. Jefferson, a young black man who by sheer chance found himself at the scene of a store robbery that went terribly wrong is convicted of murder and sullenly awaits his date with the state’s electric chair. There is substantial evidence of his guilt since the money from the cash register is found in his pockets and he has helped himself to a bottle of whiskey from behind the counter. And he is the only man still standing since the white storekeeper and the two black men who gave Jefferson a ride to the store have all been shot to death.

It is when Jefferson’s defense attorney, trying to save him from the death penalty, describes him as something more like a hog than like a man that Grant Wiggins finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the pending execution. Wiggins is the first black man who has left the plantation for an education and he is unhappy and resentful that the only work for him is teaching the children of those who still work the fields of the cane farm as generations of their families did before them. In a way, he considers himself to be as much a slave of the system as all those who are still tied to the land for their survival. But his aunt, with whom he still lives, and Jefferson’s godmother pressure him into becoming involved. They want him to convince the condemned man that he is a man, not a hog, and that he needs to approach his pending execution with all the dignity and courage that only the best of us ever really possess.

Wiggens takes on this responsibility simply because he doesn’t dare to deny his aunt’s request and, when he believes that he is failing them all, he continues the struggle only because he cannot bear to disappoint her. It is only when Jefferson begins to slowly respond to what Wiggins is telling him, and asking of him, that Wiggins realizes that he is being taught a lesson every bit as important as the one that he himself is trying to teach. A Lesson Before Dying is an inspirational book, one that will be used in classrooms for many years to come, and it very much deserves the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction that it received in 1993.

Rated at: 5.0
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