A Lesson Before Dying

by

Author:  Gaines, Ernest J.

Title:  A Lesson Before Dying

Genre:  African American Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Publication Date: 1997

Number of Pages:  256

Geographical Setting:  Bayonne, LA

Time Period:  late 1940s, post-World War II

Series:  N/A

Plot SummaryA Lesson Before Dying is the story of Jefferson, a young black man in rural Louisiana in the 1940s sentenced to die for a murder he did not commit.  In his closing statement, Jefferson’s defense lawyer argues that Jefferson is as ignorant and stupid as animal, no better than a mere hog, incapable of planning such a crime, but the all-white jury finds him guilty.  From that point on, Jefferson only thinks of himself as a hog.   Miss Emma, Jefferson’s grandmother, persuades Grant Wiggins, the local schoolteacher to speak to Jefferson to help raise him up to believe in himself again as a man, so that he may die with dignity.  The story is told in first person by Wiggins, the black boy who was able to leave the plantation to pursue a better life, but is back as the schoolteacher, burned out now by the futility of teaching poor blacks in the rural South.  Full of self-doubts, Wiggins doesn’t feel he is up to the task, but during their meetings in prison, he discovers as much about himself as Jefferson, and both men re-examine what it means to be a human being, and the strength of the human spirit.  A Lesson Before Dying is a realistic and insightful look at life in the rural South in the 1940s, and the racial prejudice that was an accepted part of everyday life. The characters are believable and very human.   In simple but powerful prose, Gaines lets the realities of the story speak for themselves almost as if this were a nonfiction peace of work.

Subject Headings: Rural Poor, African American Death Row Prisoners, African American Men, African American Teachers, Injustice, Manhood, Race Relations, The South

Appeal: moving, character driven, eloquent, emotional, detailed, ennobling, heartbreaking, powerful, classic, realistic, touching, thought provoking, simple, deep, honest, unflinching

3 terms that best describe this book: simple, honest, eloquent

Similar Authors and Works

3 Relevant Non-Fiction Works and Authors: A Saint on Death Row:  The Story of Dominique Green by Thomas Cahill is an eerily similar story of a black man on Death Row accused of shooting a white man during a robbery.   Jackie Robinson:  A Biography by Arold Rampersad is the story of the first black Major League baseball player.  Brainwashed:  Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell deals with the disturbing question of why so many blacks still think and act like slaves.

3 Revelant Fiction Works and Authors:  As I Lay Dying by William Falkner has the similar bleak setting of life in the rural South, as well as the same poignant feel .  To Kill a Mockingbird has a similar plot, setting, and sense of hopelessness of a black man falsely accused and judged by whites.  The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck has the same simple prose and similar theme of rural poverty and injustice.

Chris M.

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