From the back cover:
A Lesson Before Dying is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shootout in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach. As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his pride to Jefferson before his death. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting—and defying—the unexpected.
Ernest J. Gaines brings to this novel the same rich sense of place, the same deep understanding of the human psyche, and the same compassion for a people and their struggle that have informed his previous, highly praised works of fiction.
I had a pretty major misconception about A Lesson Before Dying. I’d expected something akin to a training montage, where Grant imparts academic knowledge upon Jefferson and produces in the end a carbon copy of himself. It’s to the book’s credit that it completely avoids this sort of approach.
Grant Wiggins wants more from life, longing to move away from the plantation community he despises but can’t seem to leave and to take along with him his married girlfriend, Vivian. He feels that events are conspiring to keep him there—like family obligations and the unwillingness of Vivian’s husband to grant her a divorce unless he can see his kids on a weekly basis—even while the community has pinned their hopes on him to such a degree that he feels driven to escape their expectations. He’s not always a likable character, but he is an interesting one. I ended up sympathizing a lot with Vivian, because he’s a fundamentally good guy who is still self-absorbed and impulsive, and does stupid guy things like get in a bar brawl and then ask her “Are you still mad?” every two minutes.
Jefferson is an incredibly compelling character. At his trial, his defense attorney—in an attempt to spare his life by establishing his complete lack of sense—compares him to a hog. When Grant first visits him at the jail, all Jefferson will do is reiterate that he is a hog, and for the longest time it doesn’t seem that progress is being made. Grant tells him that the community needs someone to stand up in defiance, someone to be their hero. They thought it would be someone like university-educated Grant who would fill that role, but Jefferson could be that person now, for the benefit of everyone else. His transormation is gradual and believeable, and the diary he writes as his execution date approaches is the highlight of the book.
I listened to this in unabridged audio, read by Jay Long. He sometimes sounds stiff reading Grant’s narration (but then again, Grant’s a pretty uptight guy), but does fabulously for everyone else, employing a variety of regional speech patterns and dialects. The one thing that bugs me about Gaines’ writing style is the tendency to repeat things with identical verbiage, be they actions or lines of dialogue. I swear the phrases “can you stand?” and “get him outta here” must be repeated about four times each (in rapid succession) in the aftermath of the bar fight.
Like the other work by Gaines that I have read, A Lesson Before Dying is sad and thoughtful. I really like how the merits and dignity of the humble and hardworking people on the plantation are gradually made evident to Grant, who has always considered himself superior to those around him. Too, I find interesting the struggles for status within the black community, particularly the resentment by mulattos and educated blacks towards the white man who lumps them together with those they consider beneath them.
I’ll be continuing to read more by Gaines. I’m thinking A Gathering of Old Men will be next.