Monday, March 19, 2007

Ernest J. Gaines: A Lesson Before Dying

Last night, Kevin and I watched our most recent Netflix pick, an HBO made-for-tv movie based on Ernest J. Gaines' novel A Lesson Before Dying. The movie was pretty good. It captured the essence of the story, and starred Don Cheadle as Professor Wiggins, so you can't go wrong there. But it left me nostalgic for the terrific prose and the depth of the actual novel. The movie is worth checking out. But the book is a must read.

A Lesson Before Dying won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Set in Louisiana in the 1940's, it is a thoughtful, eye-opening story about a young black man, Jefferson, who is sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. In the trial, the defense lawyer trys to sway the jury in Jefferson's favor by arguing that a black man doesn't have the mental capacity and capabilities to commit such a crime with intention and malice. His crucial argument is, "What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

The jury votes for Jefferson's death anyway, and what enfolds is the story of a young black professor, Mr. Wiggins, who comes to the jail each day to try to teach Jefferson how to die with dignity. Like a man.

What I love about this story is the truth of it. Things are not simple. Professor Wiggins does not want to go to the jail to help Jefferson. He's not one of these characters who is out to change the world. He doesn't actually think there is anything he can do. He doesn't even think he knows what it means to be a man. Yet, he goes because his aunt asks him to, and he feels that no matter what our situation in life, we owe something to those who love us.

I won't tell you much more because I'd rather you enjoy it in the beautiful prose of Ernest J. Gaines. But it's one of those books that will stay with you. It's one of those books that goes beyond the time period and the characters with which it's concerned. It will make you think about the world just a little differently, and your family, and your thoughts, and your faith. And if you're like me, it might make you cry. But that's ok. Because in a world of so much sugar-coated, formulaic media, it's good to be moved by something every once in a while. A great film. A symphony. A painting. Or a good, solid story written with supreme style, empathy, and grace.

Ernest J. Gaines biography on Wikipedia

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