Christopher Richard Cook's Reviews > A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
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Apr 07, 12

Read from March 21 to April 07, 2012

A LESSON BEFORE DYING, written by Ernest J. Gaines, is a contemporary novel nothing short of powerful. The novel tells the story of a young black man named Jefferson living in the late 1940s; wrongly implicated as the murderer of a storeowner, he is sentenced to death, and as a result, two elderly women - Jefferson's godmother Miss Emma and the novel's narrator Grant Wiggins' (an elementary school teacher) aunt Tante Lou - drag Grant into "teaching" Jefferson about what it means to be a human being, since Jefferson's attorney tries to defend him by saying that he would no sooner put a hog into the electric chair than he would Jefferson, since Jefferson's intelligence is about the same. The novel deals with racial injustice and asks philosophical questions such as "What does it mean to be a human being?" and "What does it mean to have something in which to believe?" "What does it mean to be a hero?" is yet another, and this heartbreaking novel attempts to answer these questions via its bold, often non-likable characters. We have Tante Lou, who treats Grant with absolutely no respect whatsoever and expects him to do everything for her while she does next to nothing for him in return; she lies to him, plays games, and manipulates him. Reverend Ambrose doesn't like Grant simply because he doesn't have faith, and he constantly reminds him of this on a regular basis, which Tante Lou supports. Vivian, Grant's girlfriend, attempts to shrink Grant's dreams and expects him to stay grounded. Even Grant himself isn't always likable (I say "isn't always" because he develops and definitely becomes a different person by the end of the novel), as he is arrogant and is senselessly mean to his students. Perhaps, one of the very few characters that I came to really like is Jefferson; even though we initially see him as a rude and crazed delinquent, we know that he was not responsible for what he was charged with, and we make a journey with him. We see Jefferson mature and become an adult, and we come to appreciate his character; at least, I do, and I think that that was a conscious effort on the part of Gaines. Even though this novel takes place in the late 1940s and is pertinent to racial injustice, I think that it will always be relevant to readers, as, among other reasons, it will always serve as a reminder of what can happen if we allow rights to be unjustly usurped and what the importance is of standing for what we believe in and being a hero.
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