A Lesson Before Dying: A Review

albdA Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines was reminiscent of The Green Mile, it’s the story of Jefferson, an innocent black man who is accused of murdering a white man and sentenced to death.

During his trial, Jefferson’s lawyer appeals to the jury, saying:

“What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”

Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, is determined to not allow Jefferson to die a hog, so the local schoolteacher Grant Wiggins is asked to help Jefferson become a man. Grant visits regularly, bringing food from Miss Emma and just sitting with Jefferson. They begin talking and build a genuine camaraderie. A white prison guard named Paul also befriends Jefferson and Grant finds himself able to communicate with and trust Paul, an unlikely friend in the segregated South.

When Grant, an agnostic, brings Jefferson a radio, the local Reverend is displeased. The Reverend begins meeting with Jefferson more regularly, trying to convert him to Christianity before his execution. Jefferson struggles with his own mortality and faith and reaches out to Grant for advice. When his execution day comes, Miss Emma and Grant are unable to watch. Afterwards, Paul comes to speak to Grant and tells him that “Jefferson was the strongest man in that crowded room.”

Overall, it’s a story about racism and prejudice. The story of an innocent man having to deal with his imminent death and those around him having to cope with the idea that an innocent man will die because of the color of his skin. The injustice of the whole ordeal is a prevalent theme and it’s somewhat shocking to see the small and large biases against all black citizens of this small town.

I thought the novel was well written and concise. It was a story I’ve heard before, but still interesting to see it from another perspective [not the same as The Green Mile]. Definitely a fantastic novel… great writing and really great characters.


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