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A Lesson Before Dying

3.91  ·  Rating Details  ·  36,709 Ratings  ·  2,192 Reviews
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 shoot out 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 struggles ...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published September 28th 1997 by Vintage (first published December 1st 1993)
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Properchica90 . I believe that Jefferson reacted so negatively to the 'Hog' name because prior to that incident, he never established a true identity for himself and…moreI believe that Jefferson reacted so negatively to the 'Hog' name because prior to that incident, he never established a true identity for himself and it was his first time hearing someone, who was Caucasian, describe his character. He probably was in a conformity stage of racial identity, believing that white is right. So, if a Caucasian individual described him as such, then it must be true.(less)
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Community Reviews

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Natalie
Feb 06, 2008 Natalie rated it it was amazing
A lesson Before Dying is a very MOVING book. By reading most of the other reviews I'm sure everyone understands what this novel is about. I'm not positive if I would have appreciated this book in High School had I read it 10 years ago. I would like to thank Mr. Gaines for his lessons!! I've typed out a few powerful passages that moved me...There were more but these are just some I made sure I highlighted!

A hero is someone who something for other people. He does something that other men don't an
...more
Rowena
Feb 25, 2013 Rowena rated it really liked it
“But let us say he was (guilty). Let us for a moment say he was (guilty). What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” - Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying.

Jefferson, an African-American man living in Louisiana in the late 1940s, is accused of a murder he didn’t commit. His lawyer uses the “hog” defence to get him off; however, this is unsuccessful and Jefferson is sentenced to death. Jefferson’s godmo
...more
Trish
Sep 23, 2007 Trish rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone
I still think about this book, even after reading it months ago. It’s a very simple story about two African-American men in 1940s Louisiana; one is a teacher and the other is a uneducated man waiting to be executed for a murder he witnessed, but didn’t commit. Both of them have given up hope for their lives, and for humanity in general. They live by the rules of the white majority, and both face a bleak future that’s beyond their ability to change. They are forced to spend time together, and eve ...more
Connie
Jefferson, a simple black laborer, found himself in a liquor store during an armed robbery. The innocent man was in the wrong place when the owner was murdered, and he was convicted of the crime in the late 1940s. The public defender had tried to convince the jury that Jefferson was not intelligent enough to plan the crime. The teacher Grant Wiggins described the trial: "He said it would be like tying a hog down into that chair and executing him--an animal that didn't know what any of it was all ...more
Nonchoix
Aug 13, 2011 Nonchoix rated it it was ok
Ernest J. Gaines' 'A Lesson Before Dying' is a tedious read that has a good story, but ultimately falls flat mainly because of shallow characters and flat writing.

However, if you are looking for a short, quick-read novel about African-Americans and whites during racial segregation in the style of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', this might be your cup of tea. But ultimately, there is nothing enlightening, heart-wrenching, or poignant about this novel. Many of the issues lay within the main character, Gr
...more
Zinta
Jul 14, 2010 Zinta rated it it was amazing
The older and, one hopes, wiser I grow, the more I admire and respect simplicity. Simplicity is not simple. Simplicity means clean lines, all that is unnecessary pared away. Simplicity means choosing that one golden word where ten would only confuse the issue. And, that one word can be clear and true.

Ernest J. Gaines is a master of simplicity. A Lesson Before Dying is clean and clear writing, descriptions that say just enough to evoke an entire scene with all senses engaged, all heart and mind
...more
Richard
A black man is wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, and a schoolteacher is given the task of helping him face his punishment like a man. The facts seem simple, but there is so much more to this little book. Through Grant Wiggins, the articulate yet conflicted narrator, Ernest J. Gaines presents the plight of downtrodden African Americans in the South. Yet he also makes the reader confront what it means to be truly human, and to face one's destiny with true courage.
Moses Kilolo
Feb 27, 2013 Moses Kilolo rated it it was amazing
Someday I will die. That I am sure of. But I do not think about it, at least, not consciously. I wouldn't want to think that a time will come when light, breath, and little breezes are things I will not experience. And never again see that little, oh, so beautiful smile in her eyes. But it will come, all the same. When? Tomorrow? Next year? Fifty, a hundred... well maybe say seventy years at the most.

That was a passing thought. Sad it was caught on record.

Well, think of a man who knows that he
...more
Ann
May 20, 2009 Ann rated it it was amazing
I reread this book recently after many years and was surprised by nearly everything - but not how good it is. I had forgotten most details of the plot, the narrative structure, the characters, so it was almost like reading it for the first time; and the shock and power of the book hit me anew. This book, about a young black man condemned to die for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the pre-Civil Rights era South and the young black teacher who is asked to teach him to die like a man, ...more
Jeanette
Mar 10, 2009 Jeanette rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best books I have ever read. I especially liked the development of Grant. I like the fact that he questions the problems and situations around him. He's not content to stay where he is in life and within himself.
Alissa Patrick
Aug 18, 2015 Alissa Patrick rated it liked it
3-3.5 Stars.

A story about race and race relations in the late 1940s. A topic that still resonates in 2015, a notion that I feel makes this novel all the more eye-opening.

Jefferson was in the wrong place at the right time- at a convenient store where his two friends decide to rob and kill the store manager. Both of his friends end up dead as well, so there's no one there to witness Jefferson's innocence. He was an innocent bystander. Unfortunately, it is 1940, the store manager was white and Jeff
...more
Shannon
Jefferson is a young man who finds himself in a situation which wrongly leads to his criminal conviction and ultimately his execution. Grant is a school teacher who is having an internal struggle with whether to stay or leave the state to pursue more opportunities and a better life. The plot unfolds around Jefferson’s godmother’s request which will require Grant to visit Jefferson regularly in prison.

Grant grapples with the enormity of the request that’s been made of him. His insecurities and th
...more
Mary Alice
Jul 18, 2008 Mary Alice rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, fiction
Absolutely incredible book. I was on my couch sobbing during parts of it. And it takes a lot to make me shed tears. Great writing. Brings you right into the moment.
Michael
A tale of Jefferson, a poor black man in Louisiana in the late 40's, sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit, and the teacher, Grant Wiggins, who is asked to help him somehow to become more of a man before he dies. Grant has little faith in his value as a teacher to elementary kids facing an unjust and impoverished life or belief in any afterlife. But he comes to identify with Jefferson and his need to achieve a sense of his own self-dignity, and this task becomes part of his own quest. ...more
Roy
Dec 11, 2014 Roy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This may be the most heart breaking book it has ever been my sad pleasure to read. A young man is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and due to his poor decision making on this one ill fated occasion, ends up wrongfully accused of murder and condemned to death row. Set during a time when race relations were strained and tilted heavily in favor of privileged whites at the expense of struggling blacks who were looked down upon (in other words, a time much worse and yet insufficiently different ...more
Kathy McC
Jul 02, 2008 Kathy McC rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everyone
This book is set in Louisiana in the 1940s. Grant Wiggins is a teacher on a plantation school, disillusioned with his life and his career.
"When you see that those 5 1/2 months you spend teaching each year are just a waste of time. You'll see that it'll take more than 5 1/2 months to scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered over those brains in the past 300 years."
"I felt like crying, but I refused to cry. There would be many more who would end up like he did. I can't cry f
...more
Danielle Franco-Malone
This book was okay.

I felt like the author could have done a better job of making interesting characters with multiple dimensions. The only two characters that were even attempted to be portrayed as interesting, evolving people were the two main characters. Everyone else was essentially static representations of a particular caricature (i.e. the girlfriend who represents everything good, the grandma who represents piety, the sheriff who represents bigotry, etc, etc). And even the two characters
...more
Patricia
Jan 13, 2011 Patricia rated it did not like it
A Lesson Before Dying is a novel written Ernest J. Gaines. Set in a small rural community in Louisiana during the late 1940s, the book concerns itself with the injustice perpetrated on a young black man who was sentenced to death for a crime that he did not commit. Jefferson, who was accused of murdering a white liquor store owner during a robbery, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Two of his associates decided to rob the store when Jefferson was with them, and ended up bein ...more
Shaun
Nov 25, 2014 Shaun rated it really liked it
This is the second book I've read by Gaines, the first being A Gathering of Old Men, and I'm pleased to say that I found both to be quite good reads.

The story, which is told in simple and understated prose, is centered around a young black school teacher named Grant Wiggins who has been charged with what seems like the impossible task of teaching a wrongly convicted and uneducated black man (Jefferson) how to be a "man" before he is executed in the electric chair.

Set in a small Cajun community d
...more
James
"Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?" I asked him. "A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better then anyone else on earth -and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer gave justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of stand, they're safe."

A Lesson Before
...more
T.S.
Dec 31, 2015 T.S. rated it really liked it
When I first started reading this book, I could not put it down. This was despite the disdain that I had for the characters, almost all of the them. All of the white characters, except one, are completely deplorable. The black characters do not fare much better, in my opinion. The main character's aunt is especially annoying. She is domineering and pouty. The other old lady is aggravatingly weak, although that is arguably too strong of a word for her since the entire plot the story is built upon ...more
Karen
May 26, 2012 Karen rated it it was amazing
Awesome book. Makes you really look at life. When our lives are over will we walk tall like a man or women no matter how our lives end. That's what I got out of the book. My favorite line. Tell my nanna I walked tall. Loved it.
Peta
Feb 08, 2014 Peta rated it it was amazing
Wow....This book left me speechless and emotionally overwhelmed.
Sean
Feb 14, 2009 Sean rated it it was amazing
(Review taken from National Endowment for the Arts' website. --SR)

Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying (1993) poses one of the most universal questions literature can ask: Knowing we're going to die, how should we live? It's the story of an uneducated young black man named Jefferson, accused of the murder of a white storekeeper, and Grant Wiggins, a college-educated native son of Louisiana, who teaches at a plantation school. In a little more than 250 pages, these two men named for president
...more
Kellie
Sep 26, 2008 Kellie rated it really liked it
There are so many lessons learned when reading this book. This is the story of Jefferson. Jefferson is at the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused and convicted of robbery and murder. He is referred to, by his own defense lawyer, as a “hog”. The reader knows he is innocent. He is convicted by a jury of 12 white men. He is sentenced to death by electrocution. Even though he is innocent and all of the black people know it, it is accepted. This is the hardest thing for me to understand. The ...more
K
Mar 16, 2013 K rated it really liked it
I wavered between three and four stars because this book was a slow starter, ponderous for the first half to two thirds of the story. The last section made up for that, though, so it's going to be four stars in the final analysis.

Grant, the main character, is an African-American schoolteacher in Jim Crow 1940s Louisiana. Grant lives with his aunt and feels frustrated and stifled in his job, in no small part because of the uphill battle he must fight just for chalk. The one bright spot in his lif
...more
Tyshae Frazier
Mar 13, 2013 Tyshae Frazier rated it it was amazing
This book was extraordinary! In the beginning of the book it starts right away with action. A boy named Jefferson makes some dumb decisions and has to go to trial where he is sentenced to be electrocuted, but thats not even the worst part! The book is all based on the idea of jefferson becoming a man, not a hog. Throughout the book there are multiple emotional moments, conflicts, and surprising moments. This book will keep you on the edge of your seat and you won't want to put it down!
Linda
This is a profound, deeply moving story about a poor, young black man in '40s-era Louisiana, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to die, and the plantation schoolteacher who was given the task of mentally preparing the young man for his execution, and to help him die with dignity. My heart just ached for these characters and what their lives were like back then, but even now, over 70 years later, this novel is relevant. It really packed a wallop with me.
Tamara Dahling
Nov 10, 2014 Tamara Dahling rated it really liked it
A young man gets in with the wrong people and ends up in a situation that is way over his head. It happens frequently, right? But when it happens to a black man in post-war Louisiana, the consequences are deadly. What's left of your life on death row? Maybe you are the dumb hog who didn't know better, as your defense contends?

I picked this up at a library book sale for $.50 and figured I couldn't go wrong. It's really a very good book. Jefferson, the young man in question, has a godmother who lo
...more
Rob
Jan 10, 2016 Rob rated it really liked it
Our library’s NEA Big Read 2016 selection, Gaines’s 1993 classic takes you back in time to the deep South, a small Cajun Louisiana community in the late 1940s. If you enjoyed Gaines’s 1971 “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” – and who didn’t like Cicely Tyson in the 1974 movie – this troubling story of death and the human psyche is a riveting tale. Although you won’t latch on to any favorite characters, Gaines does a wonderful job vividly describing life during this time period, telling a s ...more
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Born to a sharecropping family, Ernest Gaines was picking cotton in the fields by age nine and only attended school five or six months a year. When he was fifteen, he moved to California to join his mother who had relocated during World War II, and began writing. He attended San Francisco State University, served in the army, and won a writing fellowship to Stanford University. Gaines has been a M ...more
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“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.” 85 likes
“I have no more to say except this: We must live with our own conscience.” 41 likes
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