Lesson before Dying (A)
by Ernest Gaines
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Publication Date: 1997
Publisher: Random House
Topics: Crime & Punishment, Fiction, Race & Civil Rights, United States
Description: From the author of 'A Gathering of Old Men' and 'The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman' comes a deep and compassionate novel. A young man returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.
Set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s, 'A Lesson Before Dying' is an "enormously moving" (Los Angeles Times) novel of one man condemned to die for a crime he did not commit and a young man who visits him in his cell. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting - and defying - the expected. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
Review(s): "Despite the novel's gallows humor and an atmosphere of pervasively harsh racism, the characters, black and white, are humanly complex and have some redeeming quality....'A Lesson Before Dying,' though it suffers an occasional stylistic lapse, powerfully evokes in its understated tone the 'new wants' in the 1940's that created the revolution of the 1960's. Ernest J. Gaines has written a moving and truthful work of fiction." - Carl Senna, The New York Times
"Gaines's NBCC Award-winning novel tells of the relationship forged between a young black man on death row and his teacher in 1940s Louisiana" - Publishers Weekly
"What do you tell an innocent youth who was at the wrong place at the wrong time and now faces death in the electric chair? What do you say to restore his self-esteem when his lawyer has publicly described him as a dumb animal? What do you tell a youth humiliated by a lifetime of racism so that he can face death with dignity?
The task belongs to Grant Wiggins, the teacher of the Negro plantation school who narrates the story. Grant grew up on the Louisiana plantation but broke away to go to the university. He returns to help his people but struggles over 'whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be.'
The powerful message Grant tells the youth transforms him from a 'hog' to a hero, and the reader is not likely to forget it, either.
Gaines's earlier works include 'A Gathering of Old Men' and 'The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman' (Bantam, 1982)." - Library Journal
"No breathless courtroom triumphs or dramatic reprieves alleviate the sad progress toward execution in this latest novel by the author of 'The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman' (Bantam, 1982).
The condemned man is Jefferson, a poorly educated man/child whose only crimes are a dim intelligence, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being black in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s.
To everyone, even his own defense attorney, he's an animal, too dumb to understand what is happening to him. But his godmother, Miss Emma, decides that Jefferson will die a man.
To accomplish just that, she brings Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the plantation's one-room school and narrator of the novel, into the story. Emotionally blackmailed by two strong-willed old ladies, Grant reluctantly begins visiting Jefferson, committing both men to the painful task of self-discovery.
As in his earlier novels, Gaines evokes a sense of reality through rich detail and believable characters in this simple, moving story. Those who seek thought-provoking reading will enjoy this glimpse of life in the rural South just before the civil rights movement." - School Library Journal
"'A Lesson Before Dying' is a coming-of-age story set in a small Louisiana town in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man involved in a shoot-out during a robbery, is convicted of murder and sentenced to the electric chair. Says the defending attorney to the jury, "What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."
Grant Wiggins, the hope of the community, has returned to teach school after having left for a university education. He fights internal demons, his aunt, and his guilt-ridden sense of community in deciding whether to escape the small town (and the small- town mentality) or to stay.
He receives a visit from his aunt, Jefferson's godmother. With the pain of history on her face, the godmother spoke. 'Called him a hog... I don't want them to kill no hog,' she said. 'I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet.'
Grant's mandate was to instill in Jefferson a firm sense of self in the short time prior to his execution - a Herculean task, in that Grant had yet to come to terms with his own expectations of himself. In the end, and through their interaction, the two men come to realizations that allow each of them to successfully meet their demons."
In 'A Lesson Before Dying,' Ernest Gaines personifies the angst of expectation that comes with being the first of a generation to succeed, the resolute power of community, and the importance of reciprocity - giving back to that which nurtured us." -