Classic – a Lesson Before Dying – E. Gaines

A_Lesson_Before_Dying_novelShades of many past novels here – dare I say ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’? But then, that’s one of the things that make reading interesting.

‘Lesson before Dying’ begins with a young man caught up in an assault and robbery in a liquor store. The trouble is, the white owner and his 2 black assailants are killed in a shootout, and Jefferson, the only survivor, is found guilty of murder simply because he was there.

From the beginning, Jefferson is a condemned man. In fact, his godmother Miss Emma barely listens to the proceedings of his trial, since she knows that he will be found guilty—at this time, black man accused of killing a white man always was.

During the trial, Jefferson remains in a state of hopelessness; even as his defense lawyer speaks of him as a cornered animal, who simply struck out instinctively out of fear. It is this label, “Called him a hog..”, that Miss Emma wants removed before he dies in the electric chair.

The narrator of the tale is Grant Wiggins – a  disillusioned African-American schoolteacher. Gradually, Grant is compelled by his aunt and Miss Emma to begin visiting Jefferson to teach him how to go to his death with the dignity of a man. In doing so, he comes to evaluate his own pathetic existence.

There are many issues raised in ‘Lesson Before Dying’ arising from its setting in the States’ South, before the Civil Rights Movement; a time when African American people were still treated poorly, oppressed and helpless to rise above their downtrodden status. Even as an educated man, Grant Wiggins remains confused and disheartened about his status, and often considers leaving it all behind him – running away with his girlfriend, Vivian.

However, Grant has a lot to learn as he is ‘gently’ persuaded to visit Jefferson by Tante Lou, to try to fulfil Miss Emma’s wishes. Along the way he learns things about himself, his community and family loyalties. Does he have the skills to make a difference to Jefferson’s life (and death)? And what impacts might he and Jefferson ultimately have on the whole community – both black and white? And what will be the impact on Grant Wiggins, teacher, nephew, man?

What lessons did you learn from this powerful tale?

Like many great stories, there is a film version – here’s a trailer: