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A Lesson Before Dying
A Lesson Before Dying
Author: Ernest J. Gaines
From the author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman comes a deep and compassionate novel. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.
ISBN-13: 9780679414773
ISBN-10: 0679414770
Publication Date: 3/23/1993
Pages: 256
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.

4.2 stars, based on 6 ratings
Publisher: Knopf
Book Type: Hardcover
Other Versions: Paperback, Audio Cassette, Audio CD
Members Wishing: 0
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reviewed A Lesson Before Dying on + 119 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 11
The rich writing and characterisation reminded me of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' Despite a situation in which a black youth finds himself victimised and a community marginalised the characters find small ways in which to empower themselves. In the story the narrator and main character, Mr Wiggins, and Jefferson, the 'hog', both stand as heroes in different ways in order to give their female relatives something to be proud of. Each is as reluctant as the other to take on this responsibility. This book is both a history lesson and a critique of the justice system and death sentence which has contemporary value. The characters inspire in their sense of community, sense of family and ultimately, their sense of pride as they cope with and negotiate their way through, the hand they have been dealt. The themes of mean spiritedness, racial prejudice, endurance and self-empowerment are as relevant today as they were in the 1940's when the book was set. Its a story and a lesson that stays with you long after the last page has been turned.
reviewed A Lesson Before Dying on + 58 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 6
This is a well written story, along the lines of To Kill a Mocking Bird. It's not a light read--very intense content, but slow moving. It did make me cry at the end which surprised me because I didn't think I was that into the characters--especially the main character. It's a good read for anyone who likes to get a feel for that era and how it felt to be an African American during the 40's.
reviewed A Lesson Before Dying on + 7 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 5
Extraordinarily moving, solemn and beautiful. This book both brought me to tears and gave me a whole new perspective on Sundays.
reviewed A Lesson Before Dying on + 12 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 4
A book pretty simple in appearance but full of meaning nevertheless.
reviewed A Lesson Before Dying on + 205 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 3
Excellent story of injustice in the South in the 1940's. Well developed characters, made me want to read some other books by this writer.
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reviewed A Lesson Before Dying on + 943 more book reviews
This is an emotionally draining read. I found myself in the mind of the teacher, Grant Wiggins, throughout the book. He is struggling with his own role in a racially driven community when he is drawn into conflict with his aunt and a convicted man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jefferson accepted a ride with two men who attempt to rob and then kill a white man. They are are killed, too, leaving him standing over the three dead men. He grabs money from the till, a bottle of booze and heads for the door only to encounter two white men. The trial is a farce with his public defender lawyer referring to him again and again as a hog. How can the jury of all white men convict a hog he says? Of course, they do. Pressured by his aunt and her friend, the teacher finds himself unwillingly visiting the man who is so devastated by the term. His role is to help Jefferson understand that he has dignity, is a strong man and can stand up to the whites who hate his race. Can he do it? The tale spins around this dilemma.

The author grew up on a plantation much like those described in the novel. He lived in such communities and it clearly shows. The characters have so much depth that the reader realizes that the author must have encountered this situation and/or others like it during his lifetime. Excellent read!
reviewed A Lesson Before Dying on + 109 more book reviews
I had a difficult time reading this book, not because of the writing, or the voice, or the characters. All those worked, and worked very well, and that is in part why I won't focus on them this time. What made it difficult is the story itself. At first glance there was nothing I could relate to: a male protagonist coaching a death row inmate, Louisiana plantation in 1940s, persistent, and sometimes surprising, racial divides, poverty, level of education so low you could determine it from speech alone. All this was so far from whe world where I grew up in Eastern Europe and so far from my life now that at times it was challenging to stay conected to the story. Then I would read about Grant's aunt cooking for everybody and loving it when her family and friends enjoyed her food, or about adults making sacrifices to improve their children's lives and give them the opportunity of something better, and I would remember my grandmother and my parents, and that the nature of humanity is the same regardless of time, place, skin color or education, and with this understanding I would be able to regain my grasp on what was happening and keep going.
Another complicating factor was that the main emotions running through the book are anger, bitterness and general dissatisfaction. Grant is unhappy with working as a plantation teacher and being forced into coaching Jefferson. His aunt is unhappy that he doesn't see the bigger picture and even when he does become invested in helping Jefferson he does it in a way with which she disagrees. Vivian, the woman Grant is in love with, is unhappy to not be able to get a divorce from her absentee husband and not have to hide her relationship with Grant. The reverend is upset that he isn't able to get through to Jefferson while a man so much younger, who he belives is a sinner and for all his education still doesn't really understand life, eventually does what he couldn't. And Jefferson himself is bitter and angry about the unfair verdict and the demeaning defense strategy of his attorney, as well as the fact that his young life was going to be cut shortonly because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time and didn't have the werewithal to run. Keeping up with all this negativity was a bit trying for me at times.
We never learn how old Jefferson was, or any of the other characters for that matter, or whether he had a mental handicap, so a lot of his actions and reactions were puzzling to me. I never understood why it took a stranger to make him stop taking out his anger on his godmother, who couldn't be responsible for his predicament by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, there were a few things I didn't understand, such as why Grant essentially punished his students for him being dissatisfied with his life, shortchanging them in the process, or why he professed his love for Vivian and yet asserted himself at her expense, or why Grant's aunt's preferred method of communication was to glare and give silent treatments instead of explaining what her nephew clearly didn't grasp. It may take me a while to understand these thing, maybe I'm simply too young and haven't seen enough of life just yet to do so right now.
This book may have been difficult and not at all uplifting, but it did not leave me indifferent, and it made me think about issues that have never particularly affected me. It made me look at the world around me from a different perspective. It made me wonder about the things the grandparents of people I see around me haven't told them about the past. I may not be able to fully appreciate this novel now, but it certainly has altered the way I look at the world around me and that alone makes it worth reading.
reviewed A Lesson Before Dying on + 76 more book reviews
A moving novel! A must read.