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A Lesson Before Dying (Oprah's Book Club) Paperback – Enhanced, September 28, 1997
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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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.
"This majestic, moving novel is an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives." —Chicago Tribune
"A Lesson Before Dying reconfirms Ernest J. Gaines's position as an important American writer." — Boston Globe
"Enormously moving. . . . Gaines unerringly evokes the place and time about which he writes." —Los Angeles Times
“A quietly moving novel [that] takes us back to a place we've been before to impart a lesson for living.” —San Francisco Chronicle
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how do we want to deal with any of it. Something we don't think about enough,I think.
Yeah, that is not this book. This book is better.
I think the book's subtlety along with Grant's sort-of emotionally detached narrating make it all so much more bleak. It is bleak. Jefferson was in the wrong place at the wrong time and there's no clamor for appeals. The media isn't swarming and demanding justice. The FBI doesn't show up to analyze the crime scene and make sure the actual criminals are locked up.
Everyone accepts it. They hate it, but they accept it. The tone of the story and Grant's narration made me feel the utter helplessness of the characters in their perfectly segregated little town. Grant is angry and trapped, and you wish he'd stop complaining about it and just do something and then you remember Jefferson, waiting for his execution without protest.
I can see how the storytelling could be unappealing to some, but I think having the story told from Grant's perspective and realizing how they're both trapped in many ways, by virtue of being black men in the South, was a really powerful choice.
I thought all characters were well done - imperfect, rough around the edges, and totally relatable.
Why not 5 stars? I think what would have made this book amazing for me would be a better understanding of Miss Emma's motivations in going to Grant. I get that he was the teacher, but she always seemed to be teamed up with the Reverend so it was always a bit tenuous to me how Grant got involved. I also felt that Grant and Jefferson's relationship went suddenly from being not good to good. It wasn't clear to me what caused the change. I mean, it had to happen or what would be the point? But it had a bit of a "makeover montage" feel to it. Things were bad and then suddenly in a short period of time they're pretty good with only hints of the hard work that should've gone into it.
Even though I just devoted a paragraph to that, those things were very minor in the scheme of the book. I still thought it was excellent. If you're considering whether you should read it, I recommend you do.