A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
Vintage Press, 1997

Genre: Fiction

Rating: 4/5

Set in a fictional Louisiana town in the late 40s, A Lesson Before Dying, is a definitely a story worth reading — both for its message and its beautiful prose.  The story is narrated by Grant Wiggins, a black school teacher, who carries with him an undercurrent of bitterness and rage over the racism in his community.  It is through his eyes that we meet Jefferson, the nearly-illiterate black man on death row for a murder he didn’t commit.  When Jefferson’s attorney depicts him as a hog, incapable of responsibility, his godmother attempts one final act of compassion.  She asks Grant to spend time with Jefferson in his final days, educating him so he can die with the dignity befitting a man, not as an animal.

This is their story — the story of Grant and Jefferson — their struggle to live and die with dignity.

Grant is initially reluctant to intervene, preferring to distance himself from his poor plantation-community roots .  And Jefferson is initially reluctant to receive his help.  Even behind bars, this is Jefferson’s last act of freedom, the freedom to die as he wishes, rather than how others wish him to die.  But as Jefferson’s time draws near, Grant recognizes that there is more at stake here.  He is not only here to try to restore the dignity of one black man, he is here to restore the dignity of the entire black community.  And it all rests on Jefferson’s shoulders, in terms of how he chooses to die.

“Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” I asked him.  “A myth is an old lie that people believe in.  White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth — and that’s a myth.  The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in all of us.  It would destroy their myth…….I want you to chip away at that myth by standing.”

The story builds slowly and steadily, and without a lot of drama.  And even though the ending is inevitable, Gaines figures out how to add suspense and emotional power in the conclusion.  It is somber in tone, but rich with complex characters and a beautiful cadence.  This is one that you will want to re-read every year.  This is a story that reminds us that sometimes we need to hold onto faith not for ourselves, but for those we love.

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