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A Lesson Before Dying

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  51,229 ratings  ·  3,407 reviews
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.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published September 29th 1997 by Alfred A. Knopf (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)
Valerie Khaloo It's not easy to always read about how black people were treated so cruelly by white people with power. They were treated less than animals. The good …moreIt's not easy to always read about how black people were treated so cruelly by white people with power. They were treated less than animals. The good things about black people is that we turned those suffering into resilience, into strength to carry on. I hope this fight will stop one day, cause it's still going on. The characters showed us strength and faith and commitment. (less)
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Average rating 3.96  · 
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 ·  51,229 ratings  ·  3,407 reviews


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Jim Fonseca
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

I think this book deserves to be considered a classic of American literature about black-white relations in the American South. Two other books I think of in this category are To Kill a Mockingbird and The Help. None are “great literature” in a literary sense – great writing - but they are popular books and they tell stories that need to be told. For those skeptical about The Help as a classic, consider that it has more than 2 million ratings on GR and 85
...more
Sue
Aug 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Sue by: Mike Sullivan
How did I feel at the end of this book....uplifted and beaten down, both. All the love and all the hate and all the even more stultifying indifference. All the indignity and indignation. So many very heavy feelings spread through this sad story, but there are moments of redemption if you watch carefully for them.

Many already know of the story...the teenaged boy who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up sentenced to death. His family wants him to die as a man...and wants--no demands
...more
Julie
Reading Road Trip: 2020

Current location: Louisiana

Man walk on two foots; hogs on four hoofs.

The entire front of my shirt is soaked right now, from tears. I am wrecked. Wrecked.

I do not understand several things, at this moment, as I have just finished this book:
(1) How did I not know who Ernest J. Gaines was, before I researched a “Louisiana” read for my road trip last year?
(2) Why isn't this book an American classic, as well known as To Kill A Mockingbird?
(3) Are all of his books this good?



Da
...more
Diane S ☔
Jul 25, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
With raw, unflinching honesty and a brilliant depiction of time and place, this is the story of a young, black man sentenced to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A white man was shot to death, the other two perpetrators dead, someone must be held accountable.

A young school teacher, returned to the quarters to teach the black school children, and now enlisted by his aunt and the condemned man's nana to help the man go to his death as a man, not as an inhuman man, not much bett
...more
Bill Kerwin

This account of a school teacher's attempt to bring dignity to the last days of a condemned man in 1940's Louisiana is moving but still somehow disappointing. Shortened, it would have made a fine novella.
WILLIAM2
Sep 13, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A look back at Jim Crow-era Louisiana. Rosa Parks has yet take her rightful seat during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and it is still another twenty years until the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march. But Jackie Robinson has recently become first baseman of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a Louisiana parish, Jefferson, a young black man, has been convicted by 12 white men on trumped up charges of robbery and murder. Jefferson’s attorney in his closing argument refers to Jefferson as a pig; in the se ...more
Diane Barnes
Jul 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The third Ernest Gaines novel I've read gets another 5 stars from me. Just as in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" and "In My Father's House", I was not quite the same person as I turned the last page that I was when I began. There was a tiny seismic shift inside me that I recognized as another piece of understanding in this complicated dance of racial relations between black and white.

A simple story on the surface: Young Jefferson, a black man, is in the wrong place at the wrong time and
...more
Chrissie
I dare you to read this and not be moved.

Jefferson, a poor, uneducated twenty-one-year-old Black was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time--in a small-town liquor store outside of Bayonne, Louisiana. It is the 1940s. Three men are killed. He is the only survivor. He is “tried”, convicted and sentenced to the electric chair.

His “nannan” has one request. She asks that Grant Wiggins, a teacher at the church school, be allowed to speak to him. Let him die not as a “hog” but as a man. Those
...more
Rowena
Dec 26, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“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
Natalie
Feb 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Paul Bryant
Apr 23, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels
Some books, if you don’t like them you feel you’re going to be excommunicated from all decent society and be made to go about wearing sackcloth (still available from Amazon) and ashes and ringing a bell shouting “unclean, unclean”. E.g. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and everything by Marilyn Robinson. These books are so well meaning and uplifting it would be like publicly declaring that you find kittens unattractive or Van Gogh was a bit crap. A Lesson before Dying is one of these novels. It had ...more
Trish
Sep 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Joy D
Protagonist Grant Wiggins is a schoolteacher of poor black children at a church in a small town in Louisiana in 1947. As the story opens, his aunt and her friend, Miss Emma, are attending the trial of Miss Emma’s grandson, Jefferson, for murder. Jefferson was in the wrong place at the wrong time and did not kill the white proprietor, but due to the deep racism of the time and place, the jury presumes he is guilty. He is sentenced to death. Miss Emma asks Grant to visit Jefferson in jail to help ...more
Nonchoix
Aug 13, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Pamela
An incredibly powerful novel that peels back the curtain of injustice, laying bare human pride and prejudice, rooted in fear, and how one person can be the fertile ground for positive change. And each of us are potentially the "one." This novel, though centered around a man sentenced to die in the electric chair for a crime he most likely didn't commit, it is more of a story about executing the sin of pride which causes all humans to stumble.
Connie G
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
Laura
Another wonderful read by Gaines. This is heavy on the heart. The question comes to mind, "who was the teacher?" Lots of role reversals in this one. Gaines is an author to be trusted, he knows exactly how to handle his reading audience. He sure can stir the emotions but he also stirs the mind.
Gumble's Yard
A young, poorly educated black man – Jefferson - is sentenced to death despite being innocently present in a failed robbery when two black robbers and one white shopkeeper killed each other. The defending attorney tries to prevent the death sentence by saying it would be more like executing a hog than a civilised human being. As a result Jefferson’s elderly churchgoing grandmother and her friend, the narrator Grant’s Aunt, decide that the narrator – a teacher in the local school – have to teach ...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.
Elyse  Walters
Feb 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an exceptional book. My Gosh....I might consider reading it again myself. (I had just noticed a GR's friend is currently reading it).
Roy
Mar 05, 2009 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
Steven Walle
Aug 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was one of the best books I have ever read.
The book takes place in Louisianna. A black man who was a slave on the cotton farms was wrongly accused of murder and was sentenced to death by the electric chair. The book is about the last few weeks the man has on earth. A black teacher was sent to him each week to convinced him that he was worth something and that he was a man. He convinced him to believe in God and ask for forgivness of his sins. He did so to please his aunt. He walked to the
...more
Kirk Smith
Aug 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
What a powerful story. This goes to my classics shelf immediately. This is the kind of great book that makes you wonder how you could have passed it over for so long. Instant respect for Ernest Gaines.
Moses Kilolo
Feb 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Alena
Feb 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I did not want the month of February to go by without reading at least one book by a black author. Wow, am I grateful that my library had this title on display. A book I've meant to read for a long time and now I know why. What an emotional wallop.

From the opening pages where a public defender "defends" a black man by comparing him to no more than a hog, to the powerful closing pages of Jefferson's jailhouse diary, I was caught in 1940's Louisiana and the injustice of a racist society.

What is to
...more
Ann G. Daniels
Mar 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Erwin
Jan 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
"I was crying"


I finished this novel a few minutes ago. I haven't uttered a word yet. Can't. This is as close as I can come to tears. Tears shedded for beauty, tears shedded for sadness, and tears for hope.... I think I will linger in silence a little while longer....
Zinta
Jul 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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Ernest J. Gaines was a novelist, short story writer, and teacher. Born to a sharecropping family, Ernest James 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 and stepfather, because his Louisiana parish had no high school for African Americans. It was in California that he began ...more

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