Saturday, January 15, 2011

Book 1: A Lesson Before Dying

About a week ago, I finished the first of the six books I've picked as part of my 30 before 30 plan. I promised to review each book after completion.

Char recommended A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines.

It was a really quick read - only about 190 pages. The story takes place in the South, probably around the mid-20th century. A 15-year-old black boy, Jefferson, is at a convenience store when it is robbed. The clerk and both intruders shoot each other to death. As a result of his timing and color, Jefferson is put on trial and sentenced to death.

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

The story is told by Grant, an educated black man who left the "quarter" for university, but returned to live with his aunt and teach at the one-room schoolhouse on the plantation instead of joining his parents in California. It's never really clear why he chose this life instead of another where he would likely face far less prejudice.

As a teacher, I could relate to some of the frustrations of Grant. He says, "And I thought to myself, What am I doing? Am I reaching them at all? They are acting exactly as the old men did earlier. They are fifty years younger, maybe more, but doing the same thing those old men did who never attended school a day in their lives. Is it just a vicious circle? Am I doing anything?"

On the insistence of both his aunt and Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma, Grant spends the weeks following the trial visiting Jefferson in jail, trying to teach him how to be "a man," rather than the hog he's made out to be, before he dies. He's given no guidance on what this is supposed to look like and has little desire to comply. However, as Jefferson's date of execution nears, it seems they make a connection and, of course, Grant ends up learning more from Jefferson than the other way around.

"And that's all we are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood, until we--each one of us, individually--decide to become something else. I am still the piece of drifting wood, and those out there are no better. But you can be better."

It was a fairly predictable story, but that didn't take away from its meaning.

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1 comment:

  1. you should do this frequently on your blog. i like your literary opining. i know you read, a lot, so. . . please???

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