A Lesson Before Dying — A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
A Lesson Before Dying, a novel written by Ernest J. Gaines (born 1933), was first published in 1993. The setting is a poor, black, farming community in Louisiana in the late 1940s. A young black man, named Jefferson, is wrongly convicted of a murder, when his only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because Jefferson is uneducated and poor, he doesn’t stand a chance in the white courts, with a white jury. The white, court-appointed attorney, whose job it is to defend Jefferson, compares him to an animal, saying that he has no more awareness of what is going on than a hog would and should not be executed any more than a hog should be. Jefferson is, of course, found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. (We know at the outset that he is going to die and nothing is going to change that.) All this happens in the first few pages of the novel. The rest of the story is taken up with how the people who know and love him help him to die with dignity and grace. Jefferson, in no sense a hero, becomes almost a Christ-like symbol to his people.
The story is told in the first-person voice of Grant Wiggins, teacher at the plantation school, which is held in a room in the church. Grant Wiggins is a conflicted character. He has been away to the university to learn how to become a teacher and, instead of heading for greener pastures the way most educated, young, black men would do in the South, he returns to the place of his birth to teach the poor children there and to try to make a difference in people’s lives. He lives with an old aunt, Tante Lou, who raised him because his parents went off and left him. Tante Lou is outspoken and holds a grudge against Grant because he has stopped going to church. He believes in God, he says, but he can’t believe in heaven or a lot of the other things the church teaches. He says he hates teaching and he hates the way he lives, but still he stays. He has a girlfriend named Vivian who has a couple of kids and a husband from whom she is trying to get a divorce. Grant talks all the time about going away with Vivian to a better place, but, for complicated reasons, he can’t bring himself to leave.
Jefferson’s godmother, or “nannan” (Tante Lou’s best friend) calls on Grant Wiggins to visit Jefferson in the jail over the course of the time he has left and get him—force him if necessary—to go to the electric chair as a man, with dignity, and not as a “hog.” She and her friend Reverend Ambrose also want Grant to help Jefferson accept Jesus into his life, because they believe he will go to hell if he doesn’t. Grant very reluctantly agrees to try to help Jefferson over the two months or so that Jefferson has left to live, but he isn’t sure that anything he can do will make a difference. It isn’t just for Jefferson’s sake that Grant wants him to die with dignity, but also for Jefferson’s nannan, for Tante Lou, Reverend Ambrose, the children in the school, and all the people in the “quarter.”
A Lesson Before Dying is not so much about race relations in the South after World War II—although that is an element in the story—as it is about the difference that one unlikely person can make in the world. The ending is touching and completely believable without being maudlin or melodramatic. It is a novel so beautifully written, so succinct and spare in its 256 pages, that it’s a pleasure to read, even for the second time.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp