Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shoot out in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach. As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson's godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his pride to Jefferson before his death.

I had a difficult time reading this book, not because of the writing, or the voice, or the characters. All those worked, and worked very well, and that is in part why I won't focus on them this time. What made it difficult is the story itself. At first glance there was nothing I could relate to: a male protagonist coaching a death row inmate, Louisiana plantation in 1940s, persistent, and sometimes surprising, racial divides, poverty, level of education so low you could determine it from speech alone. All this was so far from whe world where I grew up in Eastern Europe and so far from my life now that at times it was challenging to stay conected to the story. Then I would read about Grant's aunt cooking for everybody and loving it when her family and friends enjoyed her food, or about adults making sacrifices to improve their children's lives and give them the opportunity of something better, and I would remember my grandmother and my parents, and that the nature of humanity is the same regardless of time, place, skin color or education, and with this understanding I would be able to regain my grasp on what was happening and keep going.
Another complicating factor was that the main emotions running through the book are anger, bitterness and general dissatisfaction. Grant is unhappy with working as a plantation teacher and being forced into coaching Jefferson. His aunt is unhappy that he doesn't see the bigger picture and even when he does become invested in helping Jefferson he does it in a way with which she disagrees. Vivian, the woman Grant is in love with, is unhappy to not be able to get a divorce from her absentee husband and not have to hide her relationship with Grant. The reverend is upset that he isn't able to get through to Jefferson while a man so much younger, who he belives is a sinner and for all his education still doesn't really understand life, eventually does what he couldn't. And Jefferson himself is bitter and angry about the unfair verdict and the demeaning defense strategy of his attorney, as well as the fact that his young life was going to be cut shortonly because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time and didn't have the werewithal to run. Keeping up with all this negativity was a bit trying for me at times.
We never learn how old Jefferson was, or any of the other characters for that matter, or whether he had a mental handicap, so a lot of his actions and reactions were puzzling to me. I never understood why it took a stranger to make him stop taking out his anger on his godmother, who couldn't be responsible for his predicament by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, there were a few things I didn't understand, such as why Grant essentially punished his students for him being dissatisfied with his life, shortchanging them in the process, or why he professed his love for Vivian and yet asserted himself at her expense, or why Grant's aunt's preferred method of communication was to glare and give silent treatments instead of explaining what her nephew clearly didn't grasp. It may take me a while to understand these thing, maybe I'm simply too young and haven't seen enough of life just yet to do so right now.
This book may have been difficult and not at all uplifting, but it did not leave me indifferent, and it made me think about issues that have never particularly affected me. It made me look at the world around me from a different perspective. It made me wonder about the things the grandparents of people I see around me haven't told them about the past. I may not be able to fully appreciate this novel now, but it certainly has altered the way I look at the world around me and that alone makes it worth reading.

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