A Lesson Before Dying
by Ernest J. Gaines
A LESSON BEFORE DYING is about a young black man, Jefferson, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He gets unwittingly involved in a shootout in a local liquor store where the white bar tender is killed. It is a small town in the south of America during the late 1940s: the all white jury find him guilty and he is sentenced to death.
Grant, the local teacher, is tasked by Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, to make sure that it is “..a man that goes to that chair, on his own two feet.” Very reluctantly, Grant accepts the challenge, and the story is based on the relationship that develops between the two men in the months that Jefferson is on Death Row. Deceptively simple in construction and tone, the novel reveals its moral complexity in the troubled voice of the narrator, the not altogether likable, Grant.
Ernest J. Gaines grew up on a plantation and his descriptions of the world of the indentured labourer, the ignorance and prejudice of the white folks, and the degradation of the black people all have the authenticity of lived experience. The devil is indeed in the incidental detail: the fact that the schools for black children started a month later and got out two months earlier than those for white children or the haunting sound heard throughout the town of the generator that powered the electric chair.
It is a novel of extraordinary depth and power, as compassionate as it is condemnatory, and demands to be read – a lesson to us all.