Book Review: A Lesson Before Dying

Written by Ernest J. Gaines

Reviewed by Eleazar Wawa, age 17

A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines, takes place in the racially divided South in the year 1948.

The story centers around a young black man named Jefferson. Prior to the current events in the novel, Jefferson was caught in the middle of a robbery at a convenience store that left the two black robbers and white storeowner dead. Jefferson is the only one left at the scene to take the blame. A trial ensues and Jefferson’s white lawyer, attempting to defend him, says that he is not a man but a dumb animal incapable of committing such a crime. This comment deeply torments Jefferson, causing him to question his own worth and humanity. Nevertheless, the all-white jury sentences him to death by the electric chair.

The novel is told through the eyes of Grant Wiggins, through whose eyes the majority of the story is told. A cynical and discouraged black schoolteacher, Grant hopes to one day run away from the South and its hardships. He demonstrates his angst with his “nothing ever changes” attitude. He is cold to others, expressing indifference towards the religious culture of his community. Grant loathes the never-ending cycle of hatred, oppression, and ignorance black men face, which he refers to as the ‘vicious circle.’

Grant’s aunt and Jefferson’s godmother choose him to visit Jefferson in jail. They hope he will teach Jefferson to acknowledge his own worth, giving him the strength to walk to the chair as a man. While very reluctant at first, and not seeing the point of approaching Jefferson, Grant eventually gives in to the request to honor Jefferson’s godmother.

There are several obstacles both Grant and Jefferson must overcome to teach Jefferson to die with dignity. The biggest hurdle is Jefferson’s greatly distorted sense of diminished self-worth, expressed by his callused attitude towards his loved ones, and his animal-like behavior the white people expect from him.

Despite the forces stacked against them, Grant and Jefferson develop a mutual respect for one another. This turns into a student-teacher bond, which eventually evolves into deep brotherhood. As Jefferson grows, so does Grant, and with Jefferson’s death, Grant and the entire community are left with something invaluable: hope for change.

A Lesson Before Dying is a novel that I would highly recommend for young adults. This touching literary work teaches its readers about having faith, enduring cruel circumstances, and rejecting the oppressions of a hateful society.

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