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.