The Barnes & Noble Review
John Grisham takes a break from penning edge-of-your-seat legal thrillers for his latest effort, a coming-of-age tale with a deceptively languid pace and a strong literary flavor. A Painted House, which Grisham first serialized in his magazine, The Oxford American, depicts the simple but hardscrabble life of an Arkansas farming family during the early '50s. Loosely based on experiences from Grisham's own childhood, this poignant story lacks the legal maneuvering and courtroom scuffles he is best known for. But there's plenty of tension just the same, an underlying, constant tension that stunningly mirrors the life of the story's point-of-view character, a seven-year-old boy named Luke Chandler.
Luke hates harvest time. Not only must he head out to the fields and pick cotton until his fingers bleed and his back aches, his cantankerous grandfather is even more irritable than usual, knowing that the success or failure of this year's crop may well determine the family's future. Plus, there is the invasion of migrant workers the family must hire to help pick the fields. This year, the workers consist of two groups: ten Mexicans who traveled north in the back of a cattle truck and the Spruills, one of the many hill families who come down from the Ozarks every fall to work the harvest.
Things start out smoothly enough, and the crop is a promising one. But signs of trouble soon appear. Hank, the Spruills' oldest son and one of the biggest men Luke has ever seen, is a walking time bomb of violence and anger. Then there's the Mexican known as Cowboy, as lean and mean as they come. The tension builds until these two indomitable forces inevitably clash, culminating in a shocking denouement that forces young Luke to deal with some very grown-up issues. And the worst is yet to come, for nature has a few things to throw at the Chandler family, as well.
Grisham's portrayal of one young boy's rude awakening to the harsh realities of life is, at turns, heartwarming and heartbreaking. The tension is subtle but constant, with undercurrents that build toward a crescendo of explosive emotion. Parts of the story are grim, and the struggles often seem endless. But at the heart of it all is the essence of the human spirit and the story of one family's ability to love and survive in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Contributing editor Beth Amos is the author of three novels, including Cold White Fury and Second Sight.
He takes command of this literary category just as forcefully as he did legal thrillers with The Firm. Never let it be said this man doesn't know how to spin a good yarn....The kind of book you read slowly because you don't want it to end.
This year, Grisham, the reigning king of the legal thriller, has veered from his usual course to write a heartbreaking and captivating coming-of-age novel. The book, which draws on Grisham's own childhood experiences, is set in the fall of 1952 and tells the tale of Lucas Chandler, the seven-year-old son of Arkansas cotton farmers. This season, the Chandlers are desperate to reap a bountiful harvest, which depends not only on the weather but also on the hard-working Mexican laborers who provide temporary help. While this book displays a markedly different, old-fashioned quality, fans of the author's thrillers will be pleased to find constant undercurrents of tension as Lucas uncovers the farm's many secrets. Actor David Lansbury, accompanied by a Southern drawl, captures the innocence and awe of the young narrator. Though a couple of the minor characters are over the top, Lansbury often does a superb job of creating colorful personalities.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Who needs lawyers? Not Grisham, in his captivating new novel, now between hardcovers after serialization in the Oxford American. Here there are hardscrabble farmers instead, and dirt-poor itinerant workers and a seven-year-old boy who grows up fast in a story as rich in conflict and incident as any previous Grisham and as nuanced as his very best. It's September 1952 in rural Arkansas when young narrator Luke Chandler notes that "the hill people and the Mexicans arrived on the same day." These folk are in Black Oak for the annual harvest of the cotton grown on the 80 acres that the Chandlers rent. The three generations of the Chandler family treat their workers more kindly than most farmers do, including engaging in the local obsession--playing baseball--with them, but serious trouble arises among the harvesters nonetheless. Most of it centers around Hank Spruill, a giant hillbilly with an equally massive temper, who one night in town beats a man dead and who throughout the book rubs up against a knife-wielding Mexican who is dating Hank's 17-year-old sister on the sly, leading to another murder. In fact, there's a mess of trouble in Luke's life, from worries about his uncle Ricky fighting in Korea to concerns about the nearby Latcher family and its illegitimate newborn baby, who may be Ricky's son. And then there are the constant fears about the weather, as much a character in this novel as any human, from the tornado that storms past the farm to the downpours that eventually flood the fields, ruining the crop and washing Luke and his family into a new life. Grisham admirers know that this author's writing has evolved with nearly every book, from the simple mechanics that made The Firm click to the manifestations of grace that made The Testament such a fine novel of spiritual reckoning. The mechanics are still visible here--as a nosy, spying boy, Luke serves as a nearly omnipresent eye to spur the novel along its course--but so, too, are characters that no reader will forget, prose as clean and strong as any Grisham has yet laid down and a drop-dead evocation of a time and place that mark this novel as a classic slice of Americana. Agent, David Gernert. (One-day laydown, Feb. 6) FORECAST: Will Grisham's fans miss the lawyers? Not hardly. This is a Grisham novel all the way, despite its surface departures from the legal thrillers, and it will be received as such, justifying the 2.8-million first printing. (For more on Grisham, see Book News, p. 178) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Cotton and baseball fill the life of seven-year-old Luke Chandler, but in the harvest season of 1952, his world is transformed by a series of secrets. The promise of 80 acres of a good crop necessitates the hiring of Mexican migrant workers and the Sproul family from the Ozarks to help pick the cotton. As narrator, Luke provides a child's-eye view of innocence, wonder, and confusion that is also rich with hopes for his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and overwhelmed by row after row of cotton. Grisham here leaves his familiar genre to create a powerfully touching family story that David Lansbury's narration captures perfectly. There's not a lawyer in sight, but Grisham fans should be pleased with the well-defined characters and conflicts. Highly recommended. Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This simple tale of cotton harvesting in 1952 Arkansas offers the curious a chance to see what Grisham would be like without all the lawyers. Now that the weather's been suspiciously clement all season, Luke Chandler's father is looking for temporary labor to pick the 80 acres of cotton his family rents. He finds a hill family, the Spruills, who promptly pitch camp on Luke's baseball diamond in the front yard, and ten migrant Mexicans who all set to picking alongside the Chandlers. As the days grow shorter, Luke's dreams of moving to St. Louis and playing for the Cardinals are nurtured by Stan Musial's run at the batting title, and he prays his big brother Ricky will come home safely and soon from Korea and worries that he'll get beaten for all manner of infractions. Meanwhile, hulking Hank Spruill wades into a street brawl and leaves a man dead; his sister Tally takes up with one of the Mexican pickers; their younger brother Trot, whose withered arm keeps him from picking much cotton, gets the fantastical idea of painting the Chandlers' weathered house. As the improbable repository of the family secrets, Luke watches the episodic season unfold, but knows he can't say anything against the Spruillsnot even the dangerous Hankbecause trouble for any of them would chase the rest of them away, and his father needs every picker he can get. So the families drift along in a quietly uneasy alliance till the inevitable climax-still another moment Luke will have to keep secret. What's Grisham like sans lawyers? Leisurely and sentimental, a little like The Cider House Rules, The Human Comedy, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and presumably a lot more like his own Arkansaschildhoodyet not all that much different in this coming-of-age story from A Time to Kill, The Firm, and all those other tales of grown-up naïfs in three-piece suits.
From the Publisher
“John Grisham is about as good a storyteller as we’ve got.”—The New York Times Book Review
“The kind of book you read slowly because you don’t want it to end ... John Grisham takes command of this literary category just as forcefully as he did legal thrillers with The Firm.... Never let it be said this man doesn’t know how to spin a good yarn.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Characters that no reader will forget. .. prose as clean and strong as any Grisham has yet laid down ... and a drop-dead evocation of a time and place that mark this novel as a classic slice of Americana.”—Publishers Weekly
“Some of the finest dialogue of his career ... Every detail rings clear and true, and nothing is wasted.”—Seattle Times
Read all of John Grisham’s #1 New York Times bestsellers:
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The Pelican Brief
A Time to Kill
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From the Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
The hill people and the Mexicans arrived on the same day. It was a Wednesday, early in September 1952. The Cardinals were five games behind the Dodgers with three weeks to go, and the season looked hopeless. The cotton, however, was waist-high to my father, over my head, and he and my grandfather could be heard before supper whispering words that were seldom heard. It could be a "good crop."
They were farmers, hardworking men who embraced pessimism only when discussing the weather and the crops. There was too much sun, or too much rain, or the threat of floods in the lowlands, or the rising prices of seed and fertilizer, or the uncertainties of the markets. On the most perfect of days, my mother would quietly say to me, "Don't worry. The men will find something to worry about."
Pappy, my grandfather, was worried about the price for labor when we went searching for the hill people. They were paid for every hundred pounds of cotton they picked. The previous year, according to him, it was $1.50 per hundred. He'd already heard rumors that a farmer over in Lake City was offering $1.60.
This played heavily on his mind as we rode to town. He never talked when he drove, and this was because, according to my mother, not much of a driver herself, he was afraid of motorized vehicles. His truck was a 1939 Ford, and with the exception of our old John Deere tractor, it was our sole means of transportation. This was no particular problem except when we drove to church and my mother and grandmother were forced to sit snugly together up front in their Sunday best while my father and I rode in the back, engulfed in dust. Modern sedans were scarce in rural Arkansas.
Pappy drove thirty-seven miles per hour. His theory was that every automobile had a speed at which it ran most efficiently, and through some vaguely defined method he had determined that his old truck should go thirty-seven. My mother said (to me) that it was ridiculous. She also said he and my father had once fought over whether the truck should go faster. But my father rarely drove it, and if I happened to be riding with him, he would level off at thirty-seven, out of respect for Pappy. My mother said she suspected he drove much faster when he was alone.
We turned onto Highway 135, and, as always, I watched Pappy carefully shift the gears—pressing slowly on the clutch, delicately prodding the stick shift on the steering column—until the truck reached its perfect speed. Then I leaned over to check the speedometer: thirty-seven. He smiled at me as if we both agreed that the truck belonged at that speed.
Highway 135 ran straight and flat through the farm country of the Arkansas Delta. On both sides as far as I could see, the fields were white with cotton. It was time for the harvest, a wonderful season for me because they turned out school for two months. For my grandfather, though, it was a time of endless worry.
On the right, at the Jordan place, we saw a group of Mexicans working in the field near the road. They were stooped at the waist, their cotton sacks draped behind them, their hands moving deftly through the stalks, tearing off the bolls. Pappy grunted. He didn't like the Jordans because they were Methodists—and Cubs fans. Now that they already had workers in their fields, there was another reason to dislike them.
The distance from our farm to town was fewer than eight miles, but at thirty-seven miles an hour, the trip took twenty minutes. Always twenty minutes, even with little traffic. Pappy didn't believe in passing slower vehicles in front of him. Of course, he was usually the slow one. Near Black Oak, we caught up to a trailer filled to the top with snowy mounds of freshly picked cotton. A tarp covered the front half, and the Montgomery twins, who were my age, playfully bounced around in all that cotton until they saw us on the road below them. Then they stopped and waved. I waved back, but my grandfather did not. When he drove, he never waved or nodded at folks, and this was, my mother said, because he was afraid to take his hands from the wheel. She said people talked about him behind his back, saying he was rude and arrogant. Personally, I don't think he cared how the gossip ran.
We followed the Montgomery trailer until it turned at the cotton gin. It was pulled by their old Massey Harris tractor, and driven by Frank, the eldest Montgomery boy, who had dropped out of school in the fifth grade and was considered by everyone at church to be headed for serious trouble.
Highway 135 became Main Street for the short stretch it took to negotiate Black Oak. We passed the Black Oak Baptist Church, one of the few times we'd pass without stopping for some type of service. Every store, shop, business, church, even the school, faced Main Street, and on Saturdays the traffic inched along, bumper to bumper, as the country folks flocked to town for their weekly shopping. But it was Wednesday, and when we got into town, we parked in front of Pop and Pearl Watson's grocery store on Main.
I waited on the sidewalk until my grandfather nodded in the direction of the store. That was my cue to go inside and purchase a Tootsie Roll, on credit. It only cost a penny, but it was not a foregone conclusion that I would get one every trip to town. Occasionally, he wouldn't nod, but I would enter the store anyway and loiter around the cash register long enough for Pearl to sneak me one, which always came with strict instructions not to tell my grandfather. She was afraid of him. Eli Chandler was a poor man, but he was intensely proud. He would starve to death before he took free food, which, on his list, included Tootsie Rolls. He would've beaten me with a stick if he knew I had accepted a piece of candy, so Pearl Watson had no trouble swearing me to secrecy.
But this time I got the nod. As always, Pearl was dusting the counter when I entered and gave her a stiff hug. Then I grabbed a Tootsie Roll from the jar next to the cash register. I signed the charge slip with great flair, and Pearl inspected my penmanship. "It's getting better, Luke," she said.
"Not bad for a seven-year-old," I said. Because of my mother, I had been practicing my name in cursive writing for two years. "Where's Pop?" I asked. They were the only adults I knew who insisted I call them by their "first" names, but only in the store when no one else was listening. If a customer walked in, then it was suddenly Mr. and Mrs. Watson. I told no one but my mother this, and she told me she was certain no other child held such privilege.
"In the back, putting up stock," Pearl said. "Where's your grandfather?"
It was Pearl's calling in life to monitor the movements of the town's population, so any question was usually answered with another.
"The Tea Shoppe, checking on the Mexicans. Can I go back there?" I was determined to outquestion her.
"Better not. Y'all using hill people, too?"
"If we can find them. Eli says they don't come down like they used to. He also thinks they're all half crazy. Where's Champ?" Champ was the store's ancient beagle, which never left Pop's side.
Pearl grinned whenever I called my grandfather by his first name. She was about to ask me a question when the small bell clanged as the door opened and closed. A genuine Mexican walked in, alone and timid, as they all seemed to be at first. Pearl nodded politely at the new customer.
I shouted, "Buenos días, señor!"
The Mexican grinned and said sheepishly, "Buenos días," before disappearing into the back of the store.
"They're good people," Pearl said under her breath, as if the Mexican spoke English and might be offended by something nice she said. I bit into my Tootsie Roll and chewed it slowly while rewrapping and pocketing the other half.
"Eli's worried about payin' them too much," I said. With a customer in the store, Pearl was suddenly busy again, dusting and straightening around the only cash register.
"Eli worries about everything," she said.
"He's a farmer."
"Are you going to be a farmer?"
"No ma'am. A baseball player."
"For the Cardinals?"
Pearl hummed for a bit while I waited for the Mexican. I had some more Spanish I was anxious to try.
The old wooden shelves were bursting with fresh groceries. I loved the store during picking season because Pop filled it from floor to ceiling. The crops were coming in, and money was changing hands.
Pappy opened the door just wide enough to stick his head in. "Let's go," he said; then, "Howdy, Pearl."
"Howdy, Eli," she said as she patted my head and sent me away.
"Where are the Mexicans?" I asked Pappy when we were outside.
"Should be in later this afternoon."
We got back in the truck and left town in the direction of Jonesboro, where my grandfather always found the hill people.
We parked on the shoulder of the highway, near the intersection of a gravel road. In Pappy's opinion, it was the best spot in the county to catch the hill people. I wasn't so sure. He'd been trying to hire some for a week with no results. We sat on the tailgate in the scorching sun in complete silence for half an hour before the first truck stopped. It was clean and had good tires. If we were lucky enough to find hill people, they would live with us for the next two months. We wanted folks who were neat, and the fact that this truck was much nicer than Pappy's was a good sign.
"Afternoon," Pappy said when the engine was turned off.
"Howdy," said the driver.
"Where y'all from?" asked Pappy.
"Up north of Hardy."
With no traffic around, my grandfather stood on the pavement, a pleasant expression on his face, taking in the truck and its contents. The driver and his wife sat in the cab with a small girl between them. Three large teenaged boys were napping in the back. Everyone appeared to be healthy and well dressed. I could tell Pappy wanted these people.
"Y'all lookin' for work?" he asked.
"Yep. Lookin' for Lloyd Crenshaw, somewhere west of Black Oak." My grandfather pointed this way and that, and they drove off. We watched them until they were out of sight.
He could've offered them more than Mr. Crenshaw was promising. Hill people were notorious for negotiating their labor. Last year, in the middle of the first picking on our place, the Fulbrights from Calico Rock disappeared one Sunday night and went to work for a farmer ten miles away.
But Pappy was not dishonest, nor did he want to start a bidding war.
We tossed a baseball along the edge of a cotton field, stopping whenever a truck approached.
My glove was a Rawlings that Santa had delivered the Christmas before. I slept with it nightly and oiled it weekly, and nothing was as dear to my soul.
My grandfather, who had taught me how to throw and catch and hit, didn't need a glove. His large, callused hands absorbed my throws without the slightest sting.
Though he was a quiet man who never bragged, Eli Chandler had been a legendary baseball player. At the age of seventeen, he had signed a contract with the Cardinals to play professional baseball. But the First War called him, and not long after he came home, his father died. Pappy had no choice but to become a farmer.
Pop Watson loved to tell me stories of how great Eli Chandler had been—how far he could hit a baseball, how hard he could throw one. "Probably the greatest ever from Arkansas," was Pop's assessment.
"Better than Dizzy Dean?" I would ask.
"Not even close," Pop would say, sighing.
When I relayed these stories to my mother, she always smiled and said, "Be careful. Pop tells tales."
Pappy, who was rubbing the baseball in his mammoth hands, cocked his head at the sound of a vehicle. Coming from the west was a truck with a trailer behind it. From a quarter of a mile away we could tell they were hill people. We walked to the shoulder of the road and waited as the driver downshifted, gears crunching and whining as he brought the truck to a stop.
I counted seven heads, five in the truck, two in the trailer.
"Howdy," the driver said slowly, sizing up my grandfather as we in turn quickly scrutinized them.
"Good afternoon," Pappy said, taking a step closer but still keeping his distance.
Tobacco juice lined the lower lip of the driver. This was an ominous sign. My mother thought most hill people were prone to bad hygiene and bad habits. Tobacco and alcohol were forbidden in our home. We were Baptists.
"Name's Spruill," he said.
"Eli Chandler. Nice to meet you. Y'all lookin' for work?"
"Where you from?"
The truck was almost as old as Pappy's, with slick tires and a cracked windshield and rusted fenders and what looked like faded blue paint under a layer of dust. A tier had been constructed above the bed, and it was crammed with cardboard boxes and burlap bags filled with supplies. Under it, on the floor of the bed, a mattress was wedged next to the cab. Two large boys stood on it, both staring blankly at me. Sitting on the tailgate, barefoot and shirtless, was a heavy young man with massive shoulders and a neck as thick as a stump. He spat tobacco juice between the truck and the trailer and seemed oblivious to Pappy and me. He swung his feet slowly, then spat again, never looking away from the asphalt beneath him.
"I'm lookin' for field hands," Pappy said.
"How much you payin'?" Mr. Spruill asked.
"One-sixty a hundred," Pappy said.
Mr. Spruill frowned and looked at the woman beside him. They mumbled something.
It was at this point in the ritual that quick decisions had to be made. We had to decide whether we wanted these people living with us. And they had to accept or reject our price.
"What kinda cotton?" Mr. Spruill asked.
"Stoneville," my grandfather said. "The bolls are ready. It'll be easy to pick." Mr. Spruill could look around him and see the bolls bursting. The sun and soil and rains had cooperated so far. Pappy, of course, had been fretting over some dire rainfall prediction in the Farmers' Almanac.
"We got one-sixty last year," Mr. Spruill said.
I didn't care for money talk, so I ambled along the center line to inspect the trailer. The tires on the trailer were even balder than those on the truck. One was half flat from the load. It was a good thing that their journey was almost over.
Rising in one corner of the trailer, with her elbows resting on the plank siding, was a very pretty girl. She had dark hair pulled tightly behind her head and big brown eyes. She was younger than my mother, but certainly a lot older than I was, and I couldn't help but stare.
"What's your name?" she said.
"Luke," I said, kicking a rock. My cheeks were immediately warm. "What's yours?"
"Tally. How old are you?"
"Seven. How old are you?"
"How long you been ridin' in that trailer?"
"Day and a half."
She was barefoot, and her dress was dirty and very tight—tight all the way to her knees. This was the first time I remember really examining a girl. She watched me with a knowing smile. A kid sat on a crate next to her with his back to me, and he slowly turned around and looked at me as if I weren't there. He had green eyes and a long forehead covered with sticky black hair. His left arm appeared to be useless.
"This is Trot," she said. "He ain't right."
"Nice to meet you, Trot," I said, but his eyes looked away. He acted as if he hadn't heard me.
"How old is he?" I asked her.
"Twelve. He's a cripple."
Trot turned abruptly to face a corner, his bad arm flopping lifelessly. My friend Dewayne said that hill people married their cousins and that's why there were so many defects in their families.
Tally appeared to be perfect, though. She gazed thoughtfully across the cotton fields, and I admired her dirty dress once again.
I knew my grandfather and Mr. Spruill had come to terms because Mr. Spruill started his truck. I walked past the trailer, past the man on the tailgate who was briefly awake but still staring at the pavement, and stood beside Pappy. "Nine miles that way, take a left by a burned-out barn, then six more miles to the St. Francis River. We're the first farm past the river on your left."
"Bottomland?" Mr. Spruill asked, as if he were being sent into a swamp.
"Some of it is, but it's good land."
Mr. Spruill glanced at his wife again, then looked back at us. "Where do we set up?"
"You'll see a shady spot in the back, next to the silo. That's the best place."
We watched them drive away, the gears rattling, the tires wobbling, crates and boxes and pots bouncing along.
"You don't like them, do you?" I asked.
"They're good folks. They're just different."
"I guess we're lucky to have them, aren't we?"
"Yes, we are."
More field hands meant less cotton for me to pick. For the next month I would go to the fields at sunrise, drape a nine-foot cotton sack over my shoulder, and stare for a moment at an endless row of cotton, the stalks taller than I was, then plunge into them, lost as far as anyone could tell. And I would pick cotton, tearing the fluffy bolls from the stalks at a steady pace, stuffing them into the heavy sack, afraid to look down the row and be reminded of how endless it was, afraid to slow down because someone would notice. My fingers would bleed, my neck would burn, my back would hurt.
Yes, I wanted lots of help in the fields. Lots of hill people, lots of Mexicans.
From the Hardcover edition.