Book Reviews of Lesson Before Dying

Lesson Before Dying
Lesson Before Dying
Author: Ernest J. Gaines
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ISBN-13: 9780679455615
ISBN-10: 0679455612
Publication Date: 9/29/1997
Pages: 272
Rating:
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 14

3.8 stars, based on 14 ratings
Publisher: Knopf
Book Type: Hardcover
Reviews: Amazon | Write a Review

65 Book Reviews submitted by our Members...sorted by voted most helpful

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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.
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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.
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Helpful Score: 5
Extraordinarily moving, solemn and beautiful. This book both brought me to tears and gave me a whole new perspective on Sundays.
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Helpful Score: 4
A book pretty simple in appearance but full of meaning nevertheless.
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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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Helpful Score: 3
This tells of the relationship forged between a young black man on death row and his teacher in 1940s Louisiana. Outstanding!
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Helpful Score: 2
This is a well-written story about a man who is falsely committed for a crime and a teacher who is asked to visit him. The relationships in the book are unique, but I'm guessing they reflect those from Louisiana during that time. It is a profound and engaging story- I recommend to people who likes The Color Purple or Beloved.
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Helpful Score: 1
It's really sad-- if you want to think in contemporary terms it's somewhat like The Green Mile in plot.
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Helpful Score: 1
I liked the description of this book and thought I would really enjoy it, but it ended up being really boring. I could barely force myself to finish.
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Helpful Score: 1
The book gives provides a look at the connection between racism and the death penalty.
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Helpful Score: 1
Enormously moving...Gaines unerringly evokes the place and time about which he writes.
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Helpful Score: 1
This was very moving story. So many different issues were addressed in an interesting manner. I recommend it and will be looking for others by this author.
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Helpful Score: 1
I think this is probably a superior book but this is an aweful audio book. The voice of the man on death row, Jefferson, sounds like a creepy cross mix between, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson and an 8 year old boy. The women's voices are so fake and falsetto. The voices ruined a moving story. I think it is probably better in print. I had not read the book before I listened to this.

Many of the others voices of the Lawyers, police officers, Mr Wiggins, and the Preacher, were really good and theatrical. But the whining voice of the death row man repeatedly say "Mr Wiggins...", was creepy, just as creepy as Johnny Depp playing Willy Wonka.
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As in his other novels, this is straightforward writing: no hidden agendas, or philosophical asides. This makes it read easily in one or two sittings: a good weekend read. In 1940s rural Louisiana, a young black man is caught up in a robbery gone sour: three men are killed as he watches. A white judiciary and jury convict him of murder. A white governor sentences him to death. The local teacher is cajoled by his aunt (and others) to help him to face the ordeal. In some ways it pits the academic against the theologian and both attempt to prepare him. Is he guilty? Not of the murders! We, of course, are privy to this in the opening chapter. But, justice as it was, someone must pay. Why not the ones with the guns (one black, one white)? Well, they're dead as doornails! Don't look for a hero to step forward and intervene in the name of âtrue justice.â There wasn't any! But observe the attitudes of the encompassing characters; it may leave you somewhat ambivalent as to their true character.
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If I'm not mistaken, this was made into a movie with Don Cheadle (Hotel Rowanda) in the role of the tutor. I saw the movie but never new the title. It was an insightful study of integrity, human dignity and social/racial justice.
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"A Lesson Before Dying" is deeply touching. I feel this book should be required reading for high school level students. I was a little surprised that it is part of Oprah's Book Club as it does not seem to fit the typical tone of Oprah books; however, it is still clearly a very high-quality piece of literature that deserves much recognition.

My overall impression of this book began a little shaky - I do not read a lot of historical fiction, and unfortunately I began this novel without much knowledge of the life and times in this era (late 1940's) for African Americans in Louisiana, but I am proud to say I learned a lot from this story - both historical facts and emotional undertones alike. The book is written in first person perspective from the main character, Grant Wiggins, who is an African American school teacher for the local plantation church school. Through his eyes you will be taken on his journey toward self-discovery as he and his community come to terms and deal with the impending execution of a falsely-accused young Black man. This story will bring you through all spectrums of emotion - from anger, to love, and quite possibly on to the verge of tears in the last few chapters.

I began this story just so I could add it to my list of Oprah Book Club reads. I finished this story with a deep appreciation to Mr. Ernest Gaines for bringing me to a much clearer understanding of this place in civil rights history and a strong emotional connection to a story that everyone should read at least once in their lifetime.
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first 100 pages were good, last 20 pages were good the rest was filler..
It wasn't that great, although the writter had a great idea, and it was well written there was just to much filler for me.
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This book was very hard to put down. It was sad but very insightful. It makes you think about family, pride, love and commitment. Definitely a book worth reading. I highly recommend it.
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An okay book, but I personally didn't think it was all that great.
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Excellent, short easy read. Though provoking
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An inmate on death row has contact with a teacher. Strangely it is perhaps the teacher who learns more.
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A classic,
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Wonderful book. Allows you to see how much differently people were treated in the old South. Worth the time to read.
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This book asks one big question: How much are we obligated to the community we grew up in? The protagonist, Grant Wiggins, is an educated man living in the impoverished rural Louisiana town of his birth, and he has one foot out the door [the first line of the novel is, "I was not there, yet I was there."] when he is asked to teach Jefferson, a condemned man, how to be a man. Wiggins struggles with being forced to invest himself in a community that he wants to leave, although he can't bear to. Ultimately, by being truthful with Jefferson about his own ambivalence, Wiggins is able to inspire him to raise his head and hold it high right up to his execution. In return, Wiggins is inspired to reclaim both his Christian faith and his role in the community.

There are so many stories of noncommittal young men who don't know which direction to take in their lives until a character close to them suffers a tragedy, which spurs them go on to become better men. I knew how this book would end of the second chapter. Gaines was handicapped by the span of the book (from sentencing to execution), and the need to mix a grim and unavoidable fate with life, hope, and inspiration. Pretty clear how that was going to turn out.

On the other hand, I learned so much from this book. It's easy for people outside the situation to ask why a smart, educated young man would choose to stay in his dead-end town and teach the sons and daughters of poor farm labourers. If it were me, one might think, I would get as far away from that town as possible. The American dream, after all, is to take one's talent and work tirelessly to turn it into a bright future for oneself and one's family. But, as a black man, Wiggins is denied the fullness of opportunity in pre-Civil rights Louisiana. Even more, he seems to feel obligated to stay and give back to the children in his community. He knows how little they have, how little hope and how little future there is for them, and how unjust their world is, and in the end he just can't walk away and leave them to it.

This is a lovely book about an awful (and ongoing) situation. The reader is brought to heartbreaking sympathy for even the hardest characters. Wiggins, who is bitter and restless, is not a very likeable man at the beginning of the book. The women in his life are stern and ungiving. Jefferson has lost all hope and all self-respect. But the reader never has to question how the characters got that way. By filling in everything the reader needs to know about the community, Gaines makes it very clear that these characters never chose poverty, ignorance, racism, or lack of opportunity.

I would not say the ending is happy, only that it is the best one possible under the circumstances. Emotionally this is a filling book, and Gaines has done very much with very little. Recommended.
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If you liked John Grisham's first novels, you'll like Gaines.
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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.
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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!
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A moving novel! A must read.
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This book was not all that great....I felt like the story was just at the surface and I could never really get to the heart of the characters. I did feel sorry for Jefferson, but towards the end I knew the evitable and was just glad the book was over.

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.
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Very compelling book about a young negro man sentenced to die but his mother wants him tutored so he dies with dignity. Interesting to be moved to such deep considerations of such essential questions of prejudice, integrity and the human spirit.
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This ISBN is actually a paperback.

This is a powerful story.
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Excellent tale, about a young man sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit. He does die but with dignity and he learns that his yong life does have worth. Recommend
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Not my favorite. Read for classes twice. Made into a movie. Set in the 1940's, this is an intense book about racial lines, the role of a teacher and what it means to be human.
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This is the story of two African-American men in 1940's Louisiana. One is a barely literate man convicted of armed robbery while only a bystander and sentenced to death. The other is an older man recruited to help the young man to die with dignity.
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A Lesson Before Dying is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shootout in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sent to death. Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation to teach. As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson's godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and pride to Jefferson before his death. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting - and defying - the expected.
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This is a good book. Enormously moving.

Ernst. Gaines brings to this novel arich sense of place, a deep understanding of the human psyche, and a compassion for a people and their struggle.
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an oprah book club book..very moving book...could not put it down...heroism and defying all odds...a must read
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I read this one two times!Its good!
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Never before had a novel pushed my emotions to the brink before I read Jefferson's journal entries late in Gaines' novel. Literally feeling Jefferson's pain, my stomach couldn't help but sink as I imagined the horror he must have felt during his last days. Extremely moving and driven by a bold plot laced with racial questions, this story is certainly a powerful glimpse into the heart and soul of man--black and white alike.
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This is one of the greatest books I have ever read. This book is also part of the Oprah's Book Club!
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This book deserves the 5 stars!
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Have read this book -- Very very good story.
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a compelling and mind-grabbing story
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Excellent story, although a bit sad. National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, 1993, and Oprah's Book Club.
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Great book from Oprah\'s book club. Deep story of friendship and loss
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Thought provoking, beautifully written.
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Great book and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award For Fiction.
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Another Oprah Book Club selection. Moving and thoughtful.
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Very depressing
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I read it a few years ago and have held on to it. Really enjoyed it.
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This was an enjoyable read. It was interesting to "witness" the transformation of the characters' attitudes.
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It was OK for me. Maybe I would have liked it better if I read it instead of listening to it on cd.
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UNABRIDGED: 8 hours on 6 cassettes
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An early Oprah pick. A great book to read.
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Set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s, A Lesson Before Dying is an "enormously moving" ("Los Angeles Times") novel of one man condemned to die for a crime he did not commit and a young man who visits him in his cell. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting--and defying--the expected. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
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This is a great read!
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A great book for anyone to read!
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Very well written. Hard to put down.
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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.
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Oprah's book club choice.....set in the 1940's...good book
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it was ok for me
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An Oprah book club pick...and a very good one!
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WINNER OF NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FOR FICTION!

Set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jerfferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shootout in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach. As he strugles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson's godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his proide to Jefferson before his death. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisiting - and defying - the unexpected.
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Oprah's book club
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didn't read