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
“Captivating . . . This is John Grisham’s best work.”—CNN
“John Grisham is about as good a storyteller as we’ve got. . . . The pages turn. The characters take on their own lives. And at times, as the cotton bolls glisten in the sun, you can’t help thinking of other coming-of-age novels from the South: Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird.”—The New York Times Book Review
“The kind of book you read slowly because you don’t want it to end . . . 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
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.
Copyright © 2001 by Belfry Holdings, Inc.
What People are saying about this
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:
The Brethren The Testament The Street Lawyer The Partner The Runaway Jury The Rainmaker The Chamber The Client The Pelican Brief The Firm A Time to Kill
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