A Lesson Before Dying (Oprah’s Book Club)

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A Lesson Before Dying, is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shoot out in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach. As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his pride to Jefferson before his death. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting—and defying—the expected.

Ernest J. Gaines brings to this novel the same rich sense of place, the same deep understanding of the human psyche, and the same compassion for a people and their struggle that have informed his previous, highly praised works of fiction.

Oprah Book Club® Selection, September 1997: In a small Cajun community in 1940s Louisiana, a young black man is about to go to the electric chair for murder. A white shopkeeper had died during a robbery gone bad; though the young man on trial had not been armed and had not pulled the trigger, in that time and place, there could be no doubt of the verdict or the penalty.

“I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be…” So begins Grant Wiggins, the narrator of Ernest J. Gaines’s powerful exploration of race, injustice, and resistance, A Lesson Before Dying. If young Jefferson, the accused, is confined by the law to an iron-barred cell, Grant Wiggins is no less a prisoner of social convention. University educated, Grant has returned to the tiny plantation town of his youth, where the only job available to him is teaching in the small plantation church school. More than 75 years after the close of the Civil War, antebellum attitudes still prevail: African Americans go to the kitchen door when visiting whites and the two races are rigidly separated by custom and by law. Grant, trapped in a career he doesn’t enjoy, eaten up by resentment at his station in life, and angered by the injustice he sees all around him, dreams of taking his girlfriend Vivian and leaving Louisiana forever. But when Jefferson is convicted and sentenced to die, his grandmother, Miss Emma, begs Grant for one last favor: to teach her grandson to die like a man.

As Grant struggles to impart a sense of pride to Jefferson before he must face his death, he learns an important lesson as well: heroism is not always expressed through action–sometimes the simple act of resisting the inevitable is enough. Populated by strong, unforgettable characters, Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying offers a lesson for a lifetime.

3 Responses to A Lesson Before Dying (Oprah’s Book Club)

  1. John Zittel says:
    81 of 83 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    A Lesson Before Dying Comes to Life, September 20, 2007
    By 
    John Zittel (Phoenixville, Pennsylvania) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: A Lesson Before Dying (Paperback)
    So, we were all assigned our summer reading and completely hated the fact we had to actually read during summer, but to my surprise I actually enjoyed one of the books I read. A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines is a heartwarming novel of how man can overcome enormous obstacles which are set against him. The story is set in the late 1940’s in the small Cajun community of Bayonne, Louisiana. Racism continues to haunt this small town and all of its members.
    This story is told through the eyes of a young teacher named Grant who finds himself struggling to find happiness in the small community he lives in. Early in the novel you learn that the story is going to surround a young black man named Jefferson who is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. When two men attempt to rob a local liquor store, the owner of the store and the robbers begin shooting. Jefferson is an innocent bystander to the crime, and when the smoke clears Jefferson is the only one left standing. Even though Grant was unable to go to the trial he already knew the outcome. He states, “I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be.” Jefferson was unable to prove his innocence, mostly due to the community’s racist feelings, and is sentenced to execution.
    Jefferson’s godmother soon realizes that there is no escape for Jefferson from this terrible fate, and that Jefferson must find a way to walk to his unfair death with his head held high. So his godmother asks Grant, the local school teacher, the favor of helping her turn her godson into a mature adult. At first Grant is doubtful of being able to help in this situation, but eventually he takes on the role of Jefferson’s mentor. Grant tries to persuade Jefferson to do the unthinkable: “I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.” With all odds against them, the two are able to perform a miracle which everyone else feels is impossible.
    Gaines creates a world in which you become lost and find yourself cheering and crying with the characters as they face and triumph over the obstacles set against them. He creates characters that are realistic and act like you and I would. They aren’t perfect and they make mistakes, but that’s what makes them so loveable. You are able to connect with them and feel as if they are family or close friends.
    This novel is high-quality from the beginning to end, but the ending is amazing. The ending is one where after you have finished you want to read it again and again. You want there to be a sequel so you can once again revisit the characters you know and love.
    A Lesson Before Dying is well written and holds many life lessons from which we can all learn. I recommend that all high school students and adults read this book. I think that anyone who is looking for a novel with valuable principles and a good plot would definitely enjoy this book. This novel scores an A+ with me and I think that anyone would appreciate it. Whether it’s a summer reading choice or not, you’ll love this novel.

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  2. James E. Carroll says:
    101 of 110 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A Lesson For Us All, November 4, 2001
    By 
    James E. Carroll (Cape Cod, Massachusetts, United States) –

    This review is from: A Lesson Before Dying (Oprah’s Book Club) (Paperback)
    I have several opinions about this book, and the first is that it should be placed on the mandatory reading list of every high school student in the USA; it is destined to become a literary classic in the same vein as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The themes introduced throughout this book are designed to elicit discussion and shatter stereotypes. The transformation of the book’s main character, Jefferson- a poor, uneducated, young, black man who has been convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and whose life is compared to that of a hog by his own defense attorney in the worst closing argument to a jury ever atempted, is remarkable to watch unfold. Jefferson is reborn on death row with the help of his teacher, Grant Wiggins, the university educated, local black school teacher who reluctantly agrees to visit Jefferson in his cell at the request of Jefferson’s aunt, Miss Emma, who wants Wiggins to make Jefferson know he “ain’t no hog.” This book will evoke emotions in most of us; you will feel yourself react as you read. It is so very well written. Of course, the question remains is whether the book’s themes will make a difference to its readers. Ernest J. Gaines, the author, must think that they will; I think that the book could have been titled, a lesson for us all.

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  3. Anonymous says:
    26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The Product of a Brilliant Mind, January 11, 2000
    By A Customer
    This review is from: A Lesson Before Dying (Oprah’s Book Club) (Paperback)
    Capital punishment, segregation, and acceptance have been a part of past and present times. Those issues along with tragedy, injustice, and accomplishment are part of the fascinating story, A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines. The setting for this novel is a small town in the south during the 1940s where the two main characters are Jeferson and Grant. Jefferson is condemned to death by electrocution for a crime he did not commit. When his godmother realizes that nothing can be done for his freedom, she asks Grant to help him die like a man. After being called a hog by his defense attorney, Jefferson looses the little dignity he had and it’s up to Grant to restore it. Grant doesn’t like the idea, but he’s forced to comply to it by his aunt. In return, Grant learns about the soul and spirit. Gaines writes this tragic story and reveals his feelings of capital punishment, segregation, and the difficulty of acceptance in a unique way, which thus makes this novel a 1993 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Ernest J. Gaines was born into the world he describes in A Lesson Before Dying. “Though the places in my stories and novels are imaginary ones, they are based pretty much on the place where I grew up and the surrounding areas where I worked, went to school, and traveled as a child…”(Vintage Books) depicts Gaines. Although what he says, Gaines has a special way of letting the reader know what his opinion is on capital punishment. He describes his feelings about this form of punishment through Grant. When the date for Jefferson’s death is set, Grant thinks about the way someone can plan a man’s death. “How do people come up with a date and time to take a life from another man? Who made them God?” Those were the thoughts going through Grant’s mind, and they showed the billiance of an author who expresses his feelings in a unique manner. Grant and Jefferson convey to the reader the true meaning of soul and spirit by teaching each other those values. Grant shows Jefferson to die with dignity. Then, conversely, he is learns a few things about the soul. The way they respond to each other is described so clearly, it’s as if the reader is in that lonely and desolate cell. Gaines also wrote about the mulattos to tell the reader about the struggle with acceptance. He teaches the reader about segregation and acceptance through his other characters. Bars in the back of town for “blacks only”, “blacks only” restrooms, and the school where Grant teaches for “blacks only” are only some of the examples of segregation Gaines so explicitly places in the novel. A Lesson Before Dying is a touching and powerful novel that reaches out to the reader and portrays a time of injustice, inequality, and struggle. Gaines does an exquisite job of describing thoroughly the pain of enduring those issues. That description makes the story powerful enough to change some readers’ thoughts. By comprehending the struggle these main characters go through, the reader gets a broader view of society which makes him/her a better person.

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