Friday, September 6, 2013

A Lesson Before Dying review

A Lesson Before Dying
by Ernest J. Gaines
Random House
December 1993

I can see why English teachers love this book, and why generations of students will be doomed to hate it. It's an unsubtle look at race relations and the death penalty, with a bit of religion thrown in for good measure. This was an Oprah's Book Club pick, and is sure to remain a popular alternative to To Kill a Mockingbird for years to come.

Grant Wiggins is an unhappy school teacher at a segregated black school in the 40's. He's pressured by his family into tutoring Jefferson, an innocent black man found at the scene of a bar robbery turned homicide. Jefferson has been sentenced to death and his "nannan" - godmother, wants to prove that he is more than a "hog" as his defense attorney had claimed.

How to make this book more relatable for teens? Hmm... you could draw parallels to the Troy Davis case, although it seems that the fervor surrounding that case has already died down. NPR did a piece on Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair.

What's really striking is that for all the visits, and all the food that's brought for Jefferson - he and Wiggins really don't speak much at all, and Jefferson never does get the equivalent of a high school education. Everything that Wiggins encourages Jefferson to do is much more for the comfort of the people who will survive him. The story is rather slow paced and full of atmospheric details of racist Louisiana in the 40's. The last chapter is a doozy as the emotional impact of the actual execution affects everyone in their small town.

I borrowed this book from the library.

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