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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Lesson Before Dying

Early in this Ernest Gaines novel the reader learns that a young black man in Louisiana in the late 1940's has been convicted of a murder he did not commit.  Racial injustice is not the primary story, however, because I believe a white man caught in the same circumstances and using the same disastrous judgment may have also been found guilty.  A white man would not have been compared to an animal during the trial, though.  Ironically, it was the defendant's own attorney who in an effort to save him from execution says there would be no more justice in killing him than killing a hog.

It is this comparison which moves the story forward as another young black man, Grant, is pressured into regular visits to the condemned man to convince him to face death as a man despite what has been said about him.  Grant is a contrast to the jailed man;  he is intelligent, educated, and attractive to the women of the black community.  He is also somewhat confused and indecisive about his own life and feels restricted by the limited opportunity of his economically depressed racist surroundings.  He often thinks of leaving with his married but separated pretty girl friend, but stays and continues his job teaching school which he finds unsatisfying.  As he gradually effects change in the prisoner, he also changes.

My complaint against some novels set in the segregationist South is that the characters are simplistic;  all the blacks are good and all whites bad.  Although Gaines writes using simple words and sentences, his characters are not at all simple.  The black characters are a mix of flaws and good intentions, and most of the whites are not so much evil as unquestioning of the society they were born into and its privileges to them and the injustices to others.  This is the way most people are in my experience.

A Lesson Before Dying is often taught in schools alongside the classic To Kill a Mockingbird.  The novels take place in similar Deep South locales, at times not far apart, and with an inter-racial crime crucial to the plot, but the stories are much different.  I very much admire them both.

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