Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

I picked up A Lesson Before Dying when I had just a few pages left to read of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. I was feeling completely indifferent about No Country and, frankly, just couldn’t wait to be finished with it. I can see why they wanted to make a motion picture out of it, and I still wouldn’t mind seeing that, I just didn’t really enjoy reading it. I finished it feeling next to nothing, and that kindly made me sad because I usually try to take away something from everything that I read.
Then I began A Lesson Before Dying.
About 40 pages in, I thought, “Wow, this narrator, Grant, is really a jerk!” I didn’t know how I was ever going to warm up to him or really, any of the characters. I was nervous! Slowly but surely, however I began to feel compassion for Grant and Jefferson, Miss Emma and the Reverend. Even Grant’s domineering aunt worked her way into my heart.
I do not honestly look forward to crying my eyes out in public places. I suppose on some level I must not mind, though, I mean “A Lesson Before Dying”? Seriously, what did I think was going to happen? But, these were not just gratuitous tears for the obvious. A Lesson Before Dying really left me with something.
The story is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940’s. A young black man is wrongly accused and convicted of murder and sentenced to death by the electric chair. In the trial, Jefferson’s defense lawyer calls him a hog, not a man, and therefore, should not be put to death. There would be no reason for it, but Jefferson is sentenced anyway.
Grant Wiggins is another black man and a teacher at the small plantation school. Grant’s aunt and Jefferson’s godmother convince Grant (against his strong will) to visit Jefferson and impart his wisdom and pride to him before his death. Teach him that he is a man - not a hog.
I like a book that raises questions and awareness. Not just questions like “What is the book about?”, but real Life Questions.
How do you hold your head up high when you are chained down? How do you stand up like a man when your hands are literally tied? How do you take pride in yourself when the world thinks you are less than human?
What would you think about if you knew the exact date and time of your death? If your physical options were limited, what would go on in your mind? What would you say to your loved ones? What would you write if you had a tiny pencil and penny notebook?
How would you become a hero when no one has ever, ever been a hero for you?
The truth is very simple, really, we just don’t know.
We don’t know what’s going to flash through our minds or what we will see when the time comes...
We don’t know exactly what to believe in....
We can only try to be the very best we can be and we try to make our loved ones proud of us. We don’t think about how we look to strangers or what other people think of us. We hold our heads as high as we possibly can.
We honestly have only one thing.
Pure and Simple.
We have faith.

Tell Nannan I walked.

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