Book Review – A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying 
Ernest J. Gaines
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (September 28, 1997)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0375702709
ISBN-13: 978-0375702709

A Lesson Before Dying, is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s.  Jefferson, a young black man, is present at a liquor store shoot out that leaves three men dead, including the white store owner. Because the two robbers are dead, Jefferson alone must pay for the crime. He is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the plantation school, is not-so-gently persuaded by his aunt to visit Jefferson and help him find some pride. Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother heard a white man refer to Jefferson as a hog, and she wants him to “be a man.”

Grant has little faith in the white justice system, and little faith in a God who allows some people to be trapped in years of prejudice and bigotry, and he has no idea how to impart any wisdom on a man who is about to die. As he tries to fulfill the promise to Miss Emma to help Jefferson “walk like a man,” Grant wrestles with his own demons.

Some reviewers have compared this book to To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic, and that is a fair comparison. Both stories have a number of lessons for the reader, especially readers far removed from the years when a black man had to stand for hours just to speak to a white man in authority.  

The cast of characters in this story are very realistic and well-drawn, and Gaines did not hold back in portraying what life was like for people in the deep south in the 40s. The story is powerful and for the most part very well-written. I did, however, find the use of vernacular overdone. There were places I had to read sentences over and over to decipher the fractured English. Granted, that is the way uneducated people speak, but I have been told by writing instructors not to use vernacular to the point of confusing a reader.

Still, this is a book well worth the read.

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