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

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for a well-written review! I want to read this book someday; it seems to always profoundly effect those who read it.

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  2. Wendy, I think that you'll like it and that you'll find it to be one of the more touching novels that you've read for a while. Gaines is a very, very good writer and he does an amazing job of recreating the period of time just before the civil rights movement began.

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  3. When I was in college I took a Black Lit class, and we read some excellent books. This is one that we read and I remember liking it, but as it has been a few years now, the details are hazy. I really should go back and read it--I still have the book on my bookshelf! I'm glad to hear it is being taught in schools!

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  4. Danielle, I never took a Black Lit class but that brings up a good point. The copy of the book that I read from the library was labeled as "African American" and I wonder if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Does it scare off as many readers as it attracts...or even more? I wonder what Gaines feels about always finding his books carrying some kind of label?

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  5. Whether it's right or not, the African American tag would probably make me think twice, as would the Oprah recommendation. If not for your review, I'd never have given it a second thought.

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  6. I sort of agree with you, anne, because a any kind of label like that on a book tends to make me think that the book probably has a certain agenda in mind and that the novel itself is secondary. Of course, that's a bad assumption but it's usually the first thing that pops into my mind when I see something so specifically classified that way.

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  7. It is too bad they label the book that way, rather than just fiction/literature. I was in college in the late 80s and the class was all "african american lit", but at the time the class was just called Black Lit--we read some great authors, which I bet I wouldn't have otherwise.

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