Book Club: A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Published:  1993 by Vintage Contemporaries

Source:  Purchased

  I don’t know how many more books – fiction or non-fiction – I will need to read to even attempt to understand what black people were forced to endure in the U.S. even as recently as 50 years ago.  I feel it’s condescending for me to wish I could apologize to every black person I see, even though I had no part in their treatment; but when I read something like A Lesson Before Dying, it is all I can think about doing.

  Set in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s/early 1950s, A Lesson Before Dying is a novel about readying Jefferson, a young black man, for execution for a crime in which he was an unfortunate bystander.  During his trial (which sadly was probably a mere formality in that time and in that place), his attorney, with what to him probably seemed the best of intentions, told the jury that “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this”.  This prompted Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, to ask Grant Wiggins, a black schoolteacher in the community, to visit Jefferson in prison in the time he has left, because “I don’t want them to kill no hog, I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet”.

Though unsure of what he is supposed to do, Grant reluctantly agrees and visits Jefferson in prison.  Neither man is sure of each other nor of their reasons for being forced together, and at the beginning their meetings are not much more than sitting in the same cell.  But  though Grant doesn’t want to visit, he begins to feel he has to, and treat Jefferson like the man he was never allowed to be.

Again, this novel was very eye-opening to me as someone who is white and who likes to think she is color-blind to everyone around her.    My head knows that these things went on, but my heart just cannot accept it.  Jefferson’s fate is horribly tragic and sad, but Grant’s is tragic in its own way; he is a black man who is educated but who still can’t seem to break free from the barrier his skin color imposes.  At the same time, I am always amazed at reading about the strong communities built around black people — it is another condescending thought on my part but to me it seems that even when the world at large treated them horribly at least they had the support of each other.

My book club discussed this at our meeting last week and we were all in agreement that it was a powerful book that is likely to become a classic.  Had it not been one of our discussion books, it is highly likely I would never have picked it up, so once again I am grateful for being in such a great group that selects such diverse books.

Highly recommended.

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8 Responses to Book Club: A Lesson Before Dying

  1. christina says:

    I read this book in college and it was phenomenal. I remember being torn apart! Also, did you know there’s a film? I **think** I watched, but my lack of sureness makes me question how brilliant it was in comparison to the book.

    • bibliosue says:

      I seemed to remember hearing about a film as well, Christina. Of course the book is always better, but I’d be interested to see how the movie turned out.

  2. Greg Jonuk says:

    Wonderful review Sue! I think you captured what makes reading books so important. When we watch or listen to media, it’s so easy to put it down. Picking up a book I find is different. When I begin to read a book, it’s like a contract has been struck. I invest in it, and it invests in me. I have been exposed to so many ideas and perspectives I would not normally been party to through reading books. And, when you read outside your favorite authors, genres, etc. beautiful things happen in your mind – the kind of things that make us all richer. Thanks for the recommendation Sue, it’s on my read list.

  3. zibilee says:

    I have had this book on my shelf for the longest time, and I think you have just given me the impetus to read it. I also can’t even believe, let alone stomach the way that black Americans were treated during the last 50 years, and it seems so foreign to me that it could have happened so recently. I loved your passionate review, and feel like this is a book that not only enlightens, but that gets people talking about real issues. Important issues. Very nice review today!

    • bibliosue says:

      It is a great book for discussion, zibilee. I know that these things happened, but like you said they still seem so foreign — that one could treat another so badly just because of skin color is something I just can’t comprehend.

  4. This novel could bring you to your knees, it’s so despairing. I imagine your discussion was difficult and heartbreaking. There is a film, a very good adaptation I thought, with Don Cheadle. Done in 1999. I’ll bet you can Netfix it or get it at your library.

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