Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines, 282 pp.

“God, what does a person do who knows there is only one more hour to live?”

Grant Wiggins, a black-school teacher in the 1940’s South, ponders this question while considering the fate of his young friend in A Lesson Before Dying. Mr. Wiggins has done more than wonder about this young man, Jefferson, from afar; in fact Mr. Wiggins has frequently visited Jefferson over the past several months in an effort to improve a seemingly unsalvageable situation.

The time Mr. Wiggins invests, however, cannot change the reality that his friend faces: Jefferson, in the opening chapter of the book, was condemned to death by electrocution after an unfair trial for a crime he was an innocent bystander to. In two senses then Jefferson was in the wrong place at the wrong time: He was at the scene of an armed liquor store robbery, but more damningly, he was a black man on trial in a racist town during 1940’s America.

Such is background for Ernest J. Gaines emotionally compelling story that explores the many psychological hurdles Jefferson, his family and his mentor Mr. Wiggins grapple with following the sentencing. Although the most egregious part of the trial was the decision made by an all white-jury to recommend the death penalty, other shocking problems for Jefferson similarly find their origin at that “sick joke” of a trial. Most notably scarring was the argument made by Jefferson’s defense attorney, who was evidently attempting to convey to the jury in a rather undank manner that it would be inhumane to put Jefferson to death. The attorney asks the jury,

“Do you see a man sitting here? …Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand—look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence? ….Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”

Thus, although fiction, one of the more apparent themes in A Lesson Before Dying is that it confronts the reader with the reality of racism. In 2008, a year honoring the 40th year since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., it is possible to both commend and be comfortable with the progress of race relations in the United States. The unfair trial Jefferson received in the novel would never occur today and such a fact indicates progress.

Racism and racial prejudices still are clearly issues in 21st century America however, and unfortunately in much more detrimental ways than assuming that our Asian friends can help us with our math homework. Sentencing statistics between different races presently are dissimilar to a statistically significant degree, as seen for instance when comparing the same crime committed by a first-time black offender to that crime committed by a first-time white offender.

Moreover, it is difficult to go a week on a college campus without hearing a racially derogatory remark made in a malicious rather than the more acceptable “humorous” manner. In a currently relevant example, the way in which Americans vote in the upcoming presidential elections may well highlight various preexisting racial prejudices among particularly the nation’s white and black racial demographics. Gaines’ defining novel then was thus a particularly appropriate read for me as a college student, as it helped me consider the implications of being part of a generation with both the opportunities and responsibilities that accompany living during a time with the best race relations in our 230 year history.

Lastly! And this was quite easily what was the most influential aspect of A Lesson Before Dying for your boy Prometheus. In my humble opinion (imho) it was the humanity that Gaines conveyed to the character of Jefferson as he awaited his death sentence. Although Jefferson is unrealistic in the sense that never in our judicial history have we intentionally condemned an innocent man to death, the fact that criminals face the same “waiting game” Jefferson did was eye-opening.

Despite his clout stemming from his prominence in the literary world, Gaines is known to be an impressively unassuming man. (If you think that’s an oxymoron, ya done.) Rather than using his fame as a platform to express his political views in press conferences and the like, Gaines resists the standard of egotistical Hollywood Liberals and remains characteristically humble. Case and point: In a literature forum, when asked whether he was against the death penalty, Gaines stood up, respectfully replied “yes,” and then sat back down. Pwned.

Gaines, in addition to having a last name that ends in an s (which makes it impossible to use his name in the possessive because I don't have a clue how to use apostrophes for names like that) uses his fiction to convey his ideas. The entirety of Chapter 29 for instance is Jefferson’s journal while incarcerated. For those who cry during Bambi, this chapter would certainly be classified as a tear jerker.*

This journal, all flippancy aside, truly exemplifies Gaines’ capability of being an emotionally gripping writer. At the end of the journal, Jefferson writes of the horror in the early morning of his execution day. The sleepless Jefferson notes as the sun begins to rise, “its quite quite an I can yer my teefs hittin. I can yer my hart.”

In conclusion, I would recommend reading A Lesson Before Dying if you are looking for something a little more serious than this review has been. It’s not an overly philosophical book; it concretely relates to “real life stuff.” It’s not exclusively about Jefferson and Mr. Wiggins; there are some other characters in there I figured I’d let surprise you. It’s not just about the Lesson; there are some subplots like a romance and a bar fight etc. (where some dude gets gged, no re’ed.) You evidently already have a good taste in what you read as is seen by the fact you’re reading our blog. Thus, as the virtuoso Gwen Stefani inquires of us all, “What are you waiting for chief?”

*The reviewer of this book in fact has not yet cried during Bambi.


1 comment:

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