Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest Gaines paints a compelling portrait of life in the late 1940's in a small Louisiana town. A young black teacher, Grant Wiggins, is caught in the middle of a number of struggles. A graduate of the local university, he is respected and the recipient of high expectations from the black community as well as feared and humiliated by less educated white authorities. 

Since Grant is considered to be learned, members of the black community turn to him for help. When a young black man, Jefferson, is falsely accused of murder and robbery and sentenced to death, Jefferson's godmother (who he calls Nannan) expects Grant to come alongside of her godson and befriend him. Jefferson's lawyer compares Jefferson to a hog: his "defense" consists of arguing that Jefferson isn't a man capable of planning the robbery or executing the murder. Ernest's task is to lift the sentence pronounced on this heretofore stranger: to make him feel like a man when his rights, dignity, and freedom have been stripped away. 

As the story enfolds it is clear that both men are prisoners. Just as Jefferson is locked behind bars, Grant feels helpless to leave his community, job, or social status. Although Grant initially rejects the task thrust upon him, gradually it becomes important to him to lure Jefferson out of his brokenness, anger, and overwhelming despair. In a pivotal scene, Grant convinces Jefferson that his response to the false imprisonment will matter to the entire community:

"Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men don't and can't do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them.... I could never be a hero. I teach, but I don't like teaching. I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the South today. I don't like it; I hate it. I don't even like living here. I want to run away. I want to live for myself and for my woman and for nobody else.

"That is not a hero. A hero does for others. He would do anything for people he loves, because he knows it would make their lives better. I am not that kind of person, but I want you to be. You could give something to her [Jefferson's godmother], to me, to those children in the quarter. You could give them something that I never could. They expect it from me, but not from you. The white people out there are saying that you don't have it--that you're a hog, not a man. But I know they are wrong. You have the potential. We all have, no matter who we are." 

"White people believe that they're better than anyone else on earth--and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth....

"I want you to chip away at that myth by standing. I want you--yes, you--to call them liars. I want you to show them that you are such a man--more a man than they can ever be."
(p. 191-2)

In a final scene Paul, a sympathetic prison guard, recounts the execution to Grant:

"He was the strongest man in that crowded room, Grant Wiggins," Paul said, staring at me and speaking louder than was necessary. "He was, he was. I'm not saying this to ease your pain...He was the strongest man there... We all had each other to lean on. When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he looked at the preacher and said, 'Tell Nannan I walked.'" (p. 253-4)

This is not only a powerful story that will make you wonder who is the teacher and who is the student, but it is also beautifully written. I particularly appreciated how the author portrayed his characters' feelings and thoughts in minute, compelling detail. 

In this passage, Jefferson's godmother and Grant visit him in prison. She tries to get him to eat some of his favorite food she  prepared for him. Jefferson has been quiet while she has tried first one food, than another, without any response. Finally Jefferson says,
    "When they go'n do it? Tomorrow?"

     "Do what, Jefferson?"

      He was quiet looking up at the ceiling but not seeing it.

     "What, Jefferson?"

     He turned toward her. His body didn't turn, just his head turned a little. His eyes did most of the turning. He looked at her as though he did not know who she was, or what she was doing there. Then he looked at me. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? his eyes said. They were big brown eyes, the whites too reddish. You know, don't you? his eyes said again. I looked back at him. My eyes would not dare answer him. But his eyes knew that my eyes knew." (p. 73)

I recommend this book for adults and mature teens; it is historically accurate and Gaines has not held back on language or explicit scenes. If you choose to read it, you, like Grant, will ask questions that won't be easy to answer:

"Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice?" 
p. 157, A Lesson Before Dying.


Rosi said...

It is a beautifully written book. I'm sure it's widely used in classrooms as it should be. I didn't know there was a film. I'll have to check it out.

Carol Baldwin said...

Yes, I should have made that point--that it would be a great asset to a high school history or literature class.

Linda Phillips said...

Great review, Carol. Definitely putting this one on my list.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Thank you for this wonderful review, Carol. I read that book a few years ago and words fail when I try to describe its impact on me. The story, the theme. The writing rose to it all, both tragic and uplifting. Your review makes me want to go read it again.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Linda and Elizabeth, for leaving comments. Yes, truly it is a memorable book.

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