Two African-American men in rural Louisiana are pulled together by circumstance in this gripping novel. A young teacher who has come back to his hometown to help raise the poor quality of education is reluctantly persuaded by his aunt to counsel a man on death row. Emotionally charged and written in a straightforward, powerful style, Gaines sketches the dramatic moments between teacher and inmate with warmth and insight. Read by Jay Long.
Despite the novel's gallows humor and an atmosphere of pervasively harsh racism, the characters, black and white, are humanly complex and have some redeeming quality...."A Lesson Before Dying," though it suffers an occasional stylistic lapse, powerfully evokes in its understated tone the "new wants" in the 1940's that created the revolution of the 1960's. Ernest J. Gaines has written a moving and truthful work of fiction. -- New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gaines's NBCC Award-winning novel tells of the relationship forged between a young black man on death row and his teacher in 1940s Louisiana. (June)
What do you tell an innocent youth who was at the wrong place at the wrong time and now faces death in the electric chair? What do you say to restore his self-esteem when his lawyer has publicly described him as a dumb animal? What do you tell a youth humiliated by a lifetime of racism so that he can face death with dignity? The task belongs to Grant Wiggins, the teacher of the Negro plantation school who narrates the story. Grant grew up on the Louisiana plantation but broke away to go to the university. He returns to help his people but struggles over ``whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be.'' The powerful message Grant tells the youth transforms him from a ``hog'' to a hero, and the reader is not likely to forget it, either. Gaines's earlier works include A Gathering of Old Men ( LJ 9/83) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Bantam, 1982). BOMC and Quality Paperback Book Club alternate selections; previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/92.-- Joanne Snapp, Randolph-Macon Coll . , Ashland, Va.
School Library Journal
YA-- No breathless courtroom triumphs or dramatic reprieves alleviate the sad progress toward execution in this latest novel by the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Bantam, 1982). The condemned man is Jefferson, a poorly educated man/child whose only crimes are a dim intelligence, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being black in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s. To everyone, even his own defense attorney, he's an animal, too dumb to understand what is happening to him. But his godmother, Miss Emma, decides that Jefferson will die a man. To accomplish just that, she brings Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the plantation's one-room school and narrator of the novel, into the story. Emotionally blackmailed by two strong-willed old ladies, Grant reluctantly begins visiting Jefferson, committing both men to the painful task of self-discovery. As in his earlier novels, Gaines evokes a sense of reality through rich detail and believable characters in this simple, moving story. YAs who seek thought-provoking reading will enjoy this glimpse of life in the rural South just before the civil rights movement.-- Carolyn E. Gecan, Thomas Jefferson Sci-Tech, Fairfax County, VA
A Lesson Before Dying is a coming-of-age story set in a small
Louisiana town in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young
black man involved in a shoot-out during a robbery, is convicted
of murder and sentenced to the electric chair. Says the defending
attorney to the jury, "What justice would there be to take this
life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in
the electric chair as this."
Grant Wiggins, the hope of the community, has returned to
teach school after having left for a university education. He fights
internal demons, his aunt, and his guilt-ridden sense of community in
deciding whether to escape the small town (and the small-
town mentality) or to stay. He receives a visit from his aunt,
Jefferson's godmother. With the pain of history on her face, the
godmother spoke. "Called him a hog... I don't want them to
kill no hog," she said. "I want a man to go to that chair, on his
own two feet."
Grant's mandate was to instill in Jefferson a firm sense of self
in the short time prior to his execution—a Herculean task, in that
Grant had yet to come to terms with his own expectations of
himself. In the end, and through their interaction, the two men
come to realizations that allow each of them to successfully meet
In A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines personifies the angst
of expectation that comes with being the first of a generation to
succeed, the resolute power of community, and the importance of
reciprocity—giving back to that which nurtured us.
Two black men (one a teacher, the other a death row inmate) struggle to live, and die, with dignity, in Gaines's most powerful and moving work since The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). The year is 1948. Harry Truman may have integrated the Armed Forces, but down in the small Cajun town of Bayonne, Louisiana, where the blacks still shuffle submissively for their white masters, little has changed since slavery. When a white liquor- store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent black bystander Jefferson gets death, despite the defense plea that "I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." Hog. The word lingers like a foul odor and weighs as heavily as the sentence on Jefferson and the woman who raised him, his "nannan" (godmother) Miss Emma. She needs an image of Jefferson going to his death like a man, and she turns to the young teacher at the plantation school for help. Meanwhile, Grant Wiggins (the narrator) has his own problems. He loves his people but hates himself for teaching on the white man's terms; visiting Jefferson in jail will just mean more kowtowing, so he goes along reluctantly, prodded by his strong-willed Tante Lou and his girlfriend Vivian. The first visits are a disaster: Jefferson refuses to speak and will not eat his nannan's cooking, which breaks the old lady's heart. But eventually Grant gets through to him ("a hero does for others"); Jefferson eats Miss Emma's gumbo and astonishes himself by writing whole pages in a diarya miracle, water from the rock. When he walks to the chair, he is the strongest man in the courthouse. By containing unbearably painful emotions withinsimple declarative sentences and everyday speech rhythms, Gaines has written a novel that is not only never maudlin, but approaches the spare beauty of a classic.
From the Publisher
"This majestic, moving novel is an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives."- Chicago Tribune
"A Lesson Before Dying reconfirms Ernest J. Gaines's position as an important American writer."- Boston Globe
"Enormously moving... Gaines unerringly evokes the place and time about which he writes."- Los Angeles Times
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be. Still, I was there. I was there as much as anyone else was there. Either I sat behind my aunt and his godmother or I sat beside them. Both are large women, but his godmother is larger. She is of average height, five four, five five, but weighs nearly two hundred pounds. Once she and my aunt had found their placestwo rows behind the table where he sat with his court-appointed attorneyhis godmother became as immobile as a great stone or as one of our oak or cypress stumps. She never got up once to get water or go to the bathroom down in the basement. She just sat there staring at the boy's clean-cropped head where he sat at the front table with his lawyer. Even after he had gone to await the jurors' verdict, her eyes remained in that one direction. She heard nothing said in the courtroom. Not by the prosecutor, not by the defense attorney, not by my aunt. (Oh, yes, she did hear one wordone word, for sure: "hog.") It was my aunt whose eyes followed the prosecutor as he moved from one side of the courtroom to the other, pounding his fist into the palm of his hand, pounding the table where his papers lay, pounding the rail that separated the jurors from the rest of the courtroom. It was my aunt who followed his every move, not his godmother. She was not even listening. She had gotten tired of listening, She knew, as we all knew, what the outcome would be. A white man had been killed during a robbery, and though two of the robbers had been killed on the spot, one had been captured, and he, too, would have to die. Though he toldthem no, he had nothing to do with it, that he was on his way to the White Rabbit Bar and Lounge when Brother and Bear drove up beside him and offered him a ride. After he got into the car, they asked him if he had any money. When he told them he didn't have a solitary dime, it was then that Brother and Bear started talking credit, saying that old Gropé should not mind crediting them a pint since he knew them well, and he knew that the grinding season was coming soon, and they would be able to pay him back then. Copyright 1997 by Ernest J. Gaines
The store was empty, except for the old storekeeper, Alcee Gropé, who sat on a stool behind the counter. He spoke first. He asked Jefferson about his godmother. Jefferson told him his nannan was all right. Old Gropé nodded his head. "You tell her for me I say hello," he told Jefferson. He looked at Brother and Bear. But he didn't like them. He didn't trust them. Jefferson could see that in his face. "Do for you boys?" he asked. "A bottle of that Apple White, there, Mr. Gropé" Bear said. Old Gropé got the bottle off the shelf, but he did not set it on the counter. He could see that the boys had already been drinking, and he became suspicious. "You boys got money?" he asked. Brother and Bear spread out all the money they had in their pockets on top of the counter. Old Gropé counted it with his eyes. "That's not enough," he said. "Come on, now, Mr. Gropé," they pleaded with him. "You know you go'n get your money soon as grinding start." "No," he said. "Money is slack everywhere. You bring the money, you get your wine." He turned to put the bottle back on the shelf. One of the boys, the one called Bear, started around the counter."You, stop there," Gropé told him. "Go back." Bear had been drinking, and his eyes were glossy, he walked unsteadily, grinning all the time as he continued around the counter. "Go back," Gropé told him. "I mean, the last time nowgo back." Bear continued. Gropé moved quickly toward the cash register, where he withdrew a revolver and started shooting. Soon there was shooting from another direction. When it was quiet again, Bear, Gropé, and Brother were all down on the floor, and only Jefferson was standing.
He wanted to run, but he couldn't run. He couldn't even think. He didn't know where he was. He didn't know how he had gotten there. He couldn't remember ever getting into the car. He couldn't remember a thing he had done all day.
He heard a voice calling. He thought the voice was coming from the liquor shelves. Then he realized that old Gropé was not dead, and that it was he who was calling. He made himself go to the end of the counter. He had to look across Bear to see the storekeeper. Both lay between the counter and the shelves of alcohol. Several bottles had broken, and alcohol and blood covered their bodies as well as the floor. He stood there gaping at the old man slumped against the bottom shelf of gallons and half gallons of wine. He didn't know whether he should go to him or whether he should run out of there. The old man continued to call: "Boy? Boy? Boy?" Jefferson became frightened. The old man was still alive. He had seen him. He would tell on him. Now he started babbling. "It wasn't me. It wasn't me, Mr. Gropé. It was Brother and Bear. Brother shot you. It wasn't me. They made me come with them. You got to tell the law that, Mr. Gropé. You hear me Mr. Gropé?"
But he was talking to a dead man.
Still he did not run. He didn't know what to do. He didn't believe that this had happened. Again he couldn't remember how he had gotten there. He didn't know whether he had come there with Brother and Bear, or whether he had walked in and seen all this after it happened.
He looked from one dead body to the other. He didn't know whether he should call someone on the telephone or run. He had never dialed a telephone in his life, but he had seen other people use them. He didn't know what to do. He was standing by the liquor shelf, and suddenly he realized he needed a drink and needed it badly. He snatched a bottle off the shelf, wrung off the cap, and turned up the bottle, all in one continuous motion. The whiskey burned him like firehis chest, his belly, even his nostrils. His eyes watered; he shook his head to clear his mind. Now he began to realize where he was. Now he began to realize fully what had happened. Now he knew he had to get out of there. He turned. He saw the money in the cash register, under the little wire clamps. He knew taking money was wrong. His nannan had told him never to steal. He didn't want to steal. But he didn't have a solitary dime in his pocket. And nobody was around, so who could say he stole it? Surely not one of the dead men.
He was halfway across the room, the money stuffed inside his jacket pocket, the half bottle of whiskey clutched in his hand, when two white men walked into the store.
That was his story.
The prosecutor's story was different. The prosecutor argued that Jefferson and the other two had gone there with the full intention of robbing the old man and killing him so that he could not identify them. When the old man and the other two robbers were all dead, this oneit proved the kind of animal he really wasstuffed the money into his pockets and celebrated the event by drinking over their still-bleeding bodies.
The defense argued that Jefferson was innocent of all charges except being at the wrong place at the wrong time. There was absolutely no proof that there had been a conspiracy between himself and the other two. The fact that Mr. Gropé shot only Brother and Bear was proof of Jefferson's innocence. Why did Mr. Gropé shoot one boy twice and never shoot at Jefferson once? Because Jefferson was merely an innocent bystander. He took the whiskey to calm his nerves, not to celebrate. He took the money out of hunger and plain stupidity.
"Gentlemen of the jury, look at thisthisthis boy. I almost said man, but I can't say man. Oh, sure, he has reached the age of twenty-one, when we, civilized men, consider the male species has reached manhood, but would you call thisthisthis a man? No, not I. I would call it a boy and a fool. A fool is not aware of right and wrong. A fool does what others tell him to do. A fool got into that automobile. A man with a modicum of intelligence would have seen that those racketeers meant no good. But not a fool. A fool got into that automobile. A fool rode to the grocery store. A fool stood by and watched this happen, not having the sense to run.
"Gentlemen of the jury, look at himlook at himlook that this. Do you see a man sitting here? I ask you, I implore, look carefullydo you see a man sitting here? Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my handlook deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can plancan plancan plan anything? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africayes, yes, that he can dobut to plan? To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn. That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder. He does not even know the size of his clothes or his shoes. Ask him to name the months of the year. Ask him does Christmas come before or after the Fourth of July? Mention the names of Keats, Byron, Scott, and see whether the eyes will show one moment of recognition. Ask him to describe a rose, to quote one passage from the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Gentlemen of the jury, this man planned a robbery? Oh, pardon me, pardon me, I surely did not mean to insult your intelligence by saying 'man'would you please forgive me for committing such an error?
"Gentlemen of the jury, who would be hurt if you took this life? Look back to that second row. Please look. I want all twelve of you honorable men to turn your heads and look back to that second row. What you see there has been everything to himmama, grandmother, godmothereverything. Look at her, gentlemen of the jury, look at her well. Take this away from her, and she has no reason to go on living. We may see him as not much, but he's her reason for existence. Think on that, gentlemen, think on it.
"Gentlemen of the jury, be merciful. For God's sake, be merciful. He is innocent of all charges brought against him.
"But let us say he was not. Let us for a moment say he was not. What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen,? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.
"I thank you, gentlemen, from the bottom of my heart, for your kind patience. I have no more to say, except this: We must live with our own conscience. Each and every one of us must live with his own conscience."
The jury retired, and it returned a verdict after lunch: guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. The judge commended the twelve white men for reaching a quick and just verdict. This was Friday. He would pass sentence on Monday.
Ten o'clock on Monday, Miss Emma and my aunt sat in the same seats they had occupied on Friday. Reverend Mose Ambrose, the pastor of their church, was with them., He and my aunt sat on either side of Miss Emma. The judge, a short, red-faced man with snow-white hair and thick black eyebrows, asked Jefferson if he had anything to say before the sentencing. My aunt said that Jefferson was looking down at the floor and shook his head. The judge told Jefferson that he had been found guilty of the charges brought against him, and that the judge saw no reason that he should not pay for the part he played in this horrible crime.
Death by electrocution. The governor would set the date.
From the Audio Cassette (Unabridged) edition.