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A Lesson Before Dying (Oprah's Book Club) Paperback – Enhanced, September 28, 1997

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Oprah Book Club® Selection, September 1997: In a small Cajun community in 1940s Louisiana, a young black man is about to go to the electric chair for murder. A white shopkeeper had died during a robbery gone bad; though the young man on trial had not been armed and had not pulled the trigger, in that time and place, there could be no doubt of the verdict or the penalty.

"I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be..." So begins Grant Wiggins, the narrator of Ernest J. Gaines's powerful exploration of race, injustice, and resistance, A Lesson Before Dying. If young Jefferson, the accused, is confined by the law to an iron-barred cell, Grant Wiggins is no less a prisoner of social convention. University educated, Grant has returned to the tiny plantation town of his youth, where the only job available to him is teaching in the small plantation church school. More than 75 years after the close of the Civil War, antebellum attitudes still prevail: African Americans go to the kitchen door when visiting whites and the two races are rigidly separated by custom and by law. Grant, trapped in a career he doesn't enjoy, eaten up by resentment at his station in life, and angered by the injustice he sees all around him, dreams of taking his girlfriend Vivian and leaving Louisiana forever. But when Jefferson is convicted and sentenced to die, his grandmother, Miss Emma, begs Grant for one last favor: to teach her grandson to die like a man.

As Grant struggles to impart a sense of pride to Jefferson before he must face his death, he learns an important lesson as well: heroism is not always expressed through action--sometimes the simple act of resisting the inevitable is enough. Populated by strong, unforgettable characters, Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying offers a lesson for a lifetime.

From Publishers Weekly

Gaines's NBCC Award-winning novel tells of the relationship forged between a young black man on death row and his teacher in 1940s Louisiana.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (September 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375702709
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375702709
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (807 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #948 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

79 of 81 people found the following review helpful By John Zittel on September 20, 2007
Format: Paperback
So, we were all assigned our summer reading and completely hated the fact we had to actually read during summer, but to my surprise I actually enjoyed one of the books I read. A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines is a heartwarming novel of how man can overcome enormous obstacles which are set against him. The story is set in the late 1940's in the small Cajun community of Bayonne, Louisiana. Racism continues to haunt this small town and all of its members.
This story is told through the eyes of a young teacher named Grant who finds himself struggling to find happiness in the small community he lives in. Early in the novel you learn that the story is going to surround a young black man named Jefferson who is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. When two men attempt to rob a local liquor store, the owner of the store and the robbers begin shooting. Jefferson is an innocent bystander to the crime, and when the smoke clears Jefferson is the only one left standing. Even though Grant was unable to go to the trial he already knew the outcome. He states, "I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be." Jefferson was unable to prove his innocence, mostly due to the community's racist feelings, and is sentenced to execution.
Jefferson's godmother soon realizes that there is no escape for Jefferson from this terrible fate, and that Jefferson must find a way to walk to his unfair death with his head held high. So his godmother asks Grant, the local school teacher, the favor of helping her turn her godson into a mature adult. At first Grant is doubtful of being able to help in this situation, but eventually he takes on the role of Jefferson's mentor.
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98 of 107 people found the following review helpful By James E. Carroll on November 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
I have several opinions about this book, and the first is that it should be placed on the mandatory reading list of every high school student in the USA; it is destined to become a literary classic in the same vein as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The themes introduced throughout this book are designed to elicit discussion and shatter stereotypes. The transformation of the book's main character, Jefferson- a poor, uneducated, young, black man who has been convicted of a murder he didn't commit and whose life is compared to that of a hog by his own defense attorney in the worst closing argument to a jury ever atempted, is remarkable to watch unfold. Jefferson is reborn on death row with the help of his teacher, Grant Wiggins, the university educated, local black school teacher who reluctantly agrees to visit Jefferson in his cell at the request of Jefferson's aunt, Miss Emma, who wants Wiggins to make Jefferson know he "ain't no hog." This book will evoke emotions in most of us; you will feel yourself react as you read. It is so very well written. Of course, the question remains is whether the book's themes will make a difference to its readers. Ernest J. Gaines, the author, must think that they will; I think that the book could have been titled, a lesson for us all.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 11, 2000
Format: Paperback
Capital punishment, segregation, and acceptance have been a part of past and present times. Those issues along with tragedy, injustice, and accomplishment are part of the fascinating story, A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines. The setting for this novel is a small town in the south during the 1940s where the two main characters are Jeferson and Grant. Jefferson is condemned to death by electrocution for a crime he did not commit. When his godmother realizes that nothing can be done for his freedom, she asks Grant to help him die like a man. After being called a hog by his defense attorney, Jefferson looses the little dignity he had and it's up to Grant to restore it. Grant doesn't like the idea, but he's forced to comply to it by his aunt. In return, Grant learns about the soul and spirit. Gaines writes this tragic story and reveals his feelings of capital punishment, segregation, and the difficulty of acceptance in a unique way, which thus makes this novel a 1993 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Ernest J. Gaines was born into the world he describes in A Lesson Before Dying. "Though the places in my stories and novels are imaginary ones, they are based pretty much on the place where I grew up and the surrounding areas where I worked, went to school, and traveled as a child..."(Vintage Books) depicts Gaines. Although what he says, Gaines has a special way of letting the reader know what his opinion is on capital punishment. He describes his feelings about this form of punishment through Grant. When the date for Jefferson's death is set, Grant thinks about the way someone can plan a man's death. "How do people come up with a date and time to take a life from another man? Who made them God?Read more ›
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60 of 71 people found the following review helpful By M. H. Bayliss on October 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
I'm glad to hear many of the students who reviewed this book say that they found it more piercing than some of the "older" novels they read in class. Although as a teacher I wouldn't throw aside Hawthorne for Gaines, I think this book is a terrific addition to the American classics read in middle and high school. It makes a good pairing with To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee's classic (and still as moving as ever) focuses on the trial of a black man, unfairly convicted, whereas Lesson accepts the inevitable death sentence and explores the journey towards salvation. Our narrator is the only "educated" person in the novel, but for all his education, he has no soul and no religious faith. After being asked to meet with Jefferson, the condemned man, to convince him that he is in fact a man, not a hog, the narrator discovers as much about himself as the prisoner. The minor cast of characters are well drawn -- the pain evident in their lives is present on ever page. We witness the indignities they suffer in the hands of the white justice system, including being forced to wait hours just to speak to the sheriff. I'm glad Gaines includes one "good" white man (Paul) as a gesture of good will that there are always smaller heroes among villains. The friendship between the narrator and Paul makes for an inspiring finale.
This book is very moving and well-written. Highly recommended.
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