A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Ernest J. Gaines, classics club


Well, I didn’t mean to read this book this month, but it was actually perfectly timed.

The Classics Club pick I meant to read this month was The Three Musketeers, but with only a week left in July I hadn’t even really started it yet (I was only about 10 pages in), and I knew that I wasn’t going to have the time for it. But I had hardly packed about half of my books, including my classics, so I didn’t have a lot of options. As I continued with the packing, I realized A Lesson Before Dying was still on my shelves and it was on the Classics Club’s Big List, so poof! I decided it seemed short enough that I’d be able to fit it in. I was right, because I ended up reading it in about two days.

A Lesson Before Dying tells the story of a small town in the 1940’s – a black man named Jefferson is sentenced to death by an all-white jury for a crime he didn’t commit. During the trial, one of the attorneys refers to Jefferson as simple-minded – almost like a hog instead of a human being. Grant Wiggins is a black schoolteacher, frustrated by the oppression and racism in his hometown but unable to escape it. He’s approached by his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother to visit Jefferson and reach him, to try to bring out the man in him and stand tall at his execution to prove those white people wrong – that he is a human being, not a hog.

Grant is the narrator, the main character, and honestly I didn’t like him much. At first it was because he was so angry and bitter, but that quickly became easy to understand, seeing the world through his eyes. I didn’t like the way he treated the people around him though, especially the ones he claimed to love. By the end of the book, as the bond between him and Jefferson grows, I started to like him more. By the end of the book, I wanted to cry along with him.

It seems like perfect timing to be reading about an unjust trial overflowing with racism *coughZimmermancough*. This story… sigh. It’s sad. To read about white people treating black people so cruelly is painful, and infuriating. And what’s even worse is that we STILL see that kind of injustice in the judicial system today. This is not an uplifting or hopeful kind of story, but it’s very realistic and I appreciated it for that. And after finishing the book, the story and the characters of Grant and Jefferson lingered with me.

This isn’t the kind of book that you enjoy, but it’s one that deserves attention and thought, and I’m glad to see it considered a classic even though it was published in 1993. Has anyone read anything else by Ernest J. Gaines?


Sarah Says: 4 stars



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