A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

May 16, 2010
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There are hundreds of books about the injustices of segregation throughout generations of America. From Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and To Kill a Mockingbird, the great American classics describe the terrible ordeals that came with the prejudice and stereotyping that blacks faced during the 19th and 20th century.
Added to this canon; A Lesson Before Dying, an extraordinary novel by Ernest J. Gaines. Published in June 1994, it was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Set in the 1940s, it is a story of an innocent young black man, Jefferson, convicted of a murder because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. A jury of twelve white men delivers the inevitable sentence of death by electrocution. In contrast to Jefferson is the protagonist, Grant Wiggins, a young black schoolteacher whose life is full of promise. Yet he is also in conflict as one of the few educated blacks in his community and he is facing a choice whether to stay with his aunt, or escape to another state and start a new life. As he is debating his choices, his aunt and her close friend, Jefferson’s godmother, persuade Grant to visit Jefferson in his jail cell. What Grant intended to be an obligatory meeting ended up changing the lives of both men. They became linked by an unfathomable bond, a bond based on trust, encouragement and a need for true companionship. Each helps the other become something that by himself neither would have imagined possible. Jefferson, bereft of confidence and any self esteem, becomes a man, while Grant realizes the importance of who he is and his status in society.
Ernest Gaines wonderfully crafts this book by creating the different personalities of the characters in the book. Grant Wiggins is not the ideal nephew for his aunt. He doesn’t attend church and withdraws from her austere and pious ways. Though better off than most, Grant never seems happy with what he has. Though at odds with the church community on how to help Jefferson, Grant—with all of his flaws, does help Jefferson to grow. Then, there is Jefferson himself, an uneducated man who isn’t able to face his fate. Yet, his transformation influences others as well as himself.
Told from Grant’s point of view, readers are drawn in to a world governed by racism. Being educated, Grant feels the sting of white oppression more than others in his community, and it weighs heavily on him. Unlike To Kill A Mockingbird, which is written from the point of view of Scout, an innocent little white girl who doesn’t quite understand everything she observes, Grant is all too aware of the evils of racism. Through his observations and actions, we can vicariously live inside of him, feeling the contempt and frustration that he feels as he faces various obstacles. It also allows us to gain a deeper insight into Jefferson because as Grant gets emotionally closer to Jefferson, Grant is able to express the sympathy that he shares with Jefferson of being forced into submission by whites. He expresses his own anger when he says, “Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers.”
I strongly recommend this book to anyone that wants to read into our past with a new perspective. The beauty of this book is the impact that is has on its reader based on one’s different perceptions. As I consider the emotional impact it had on me with the poignant relationship of Grant and Jefferson, I would give it a rating of 5 out of 5 stars. This book elucidates the harsh truths about our history through a compelling story that tugs at the deepest part of our hearts.

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