Friday, September 14, 2007

[Book Review] A LESSON BEFORE DYING by Ernest J. Gaines


Sara Ellen Reid reviews A LESSON BEFORE DYING by Ernest J. Gaines (Vintage Books, 1993)

In the fictional community of Bayonne, Louisiana during the 1940s, Jefferson, a young, uneducated black man, has been unjustly accused of murder. He was with two acquaintances when they killed a white storekeeper who refused to extend them credit. Now Jefferson has been tried, convicted, and sentenced to die by electrocution. In court, his own attorney poorly represented him and labeled him a mentally incompetent "fool" and, even worse, a "hog" that was incapable of planning a robbery or murder. "What justice would there be to take his life? Why I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair...."

Miss Emma, Jefferson's godmother who reared him, is deeply hurt by this portrayal; she enlists Grant Wiggins, a local plantation school teacher, to help Jefferson cope with the reality of the situation and to die with a sense of humanity. Mr. Wiggins, the story's narrator, is clearly unhappy about the assignment, but finally agrees to talk with Jefferson out of loyalty to Miss Emma. He has no idea how to proceed. Wiggins is dealing with his own issues--his discontent with his lot in life, his uncertain faith in God, and his sense of futility. Ultimately, the two men forge a friendship and both learn important lessons about living, as well as about dying with wisdom, courage, and dignity.

A Lesson Before Dying is a deeply moving, thought-provoking story which deals with life and death issues common to mankind. It was honored with the National Book Critics Circle Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Sara Ellen Reid, Parkway Village Library

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This is one of my favorite books! Also, it was a pretty decent movie, produced by HBO (if I'm not mistaken) and starring Don Cheadle.
Thank you for a thoughtful review of a wonderful book.
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