Sunday, November 29, 2009

OTC 10: "A Lesson Before Dying" -- U. S.

This is my 10th novel for the Orbis Terrarum 2009 Challenge.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, 1993.

This novel is set in rural Louisiana in 1948 and 1949; it tells the story of two young African American men, Grant Wiggins and Jefferson, whose lives become intertwined in the months prior to Jefferson's execution for a murder he did not commit. Grant the novel's narrator, who in his late 20s, has been raised by his aunt and has been fortunate in having acquired a college education; he has returned to the plantation community of his birth to teach school, although he hates the work and wishes to leave but hasn't in part because he doesn't clearly know what he wishes to do with his life and partly because he's in love with Vivian, a mother of two small children who is also a teacher and who is in the process of trying to obtain a divorce from her estranged husband. Jefferson, 21, is a young man of somewhat limited intellectual abilities who was unfortunately an innocent bystander during a shootout between a white liquor store owner and two young black thieves during an attempted robbery; as the sole survivor, he is put on trial for the murder of the store owner, although he had nothing to do with the robbery. His white attorney "defends" him by claiming that, as a Negro, he lacked the mental ability to have planned such a robbery, that executing him for the murder would be nothing more than the killing of an innocent "hog" and that he should not be sentenced to death. He is found guilty by the all-white jury and sentenced to death by eletrocution by the white judge. His godmother, who raised him, asks Grant to visit Jefferson and to teach him what means to be a "man" so that he can show the white community that he is not an animal, not a "hog," and so that he can die with dignity.

Grant doesn't wish to accept this challenge but is more or less coerced into doing so by his aunt who had raised him; the novel focuses on the many obstacles he faces, from the racist white community, from the jealous black preacher who believes he should be the one dealing exclusively with Jefferson, from his own doubts about himself and his desire to flee this community altogether, and not least from Jefferson himself who has accepted his attorney's view that he is nothing but a "hawg" and that his life and death are meaningless. Both young men are forced to struggle mightily before either is able to learn "a lesson before dying."

This is a powerful and affecting novel; it ranks as one of the best three works of fiction I've read in 2009, and I simply cannot recommend it highly enough.


Blogger Eva said...

I read this earlier in the year and had mixed feelings about it. Mainly, I didn't like Grant at all...I would even say I actively disliked him, which made it difficult for me to care about any of his problems. But I did admire the writing, so I want to read more Gaines in the future!

10:24 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

I think we're supposed to have a certain amount of dislike for Grant; he's definitely not made a particularly sympathetic character -- too self-centered and whiney much of the time. That at least adds to the sense that Gaines is presenting us with real people.

4:13 PM  

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