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A Lesson Before Dying    by Ernest J. Gaines order for
Lesson Before Dying
by Ernest J. Gaines
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 1997 (1994)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

A Lesson Before Dying is a very compelling book; the story of a young black man, Jefferson, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was implicated in a robbery that went sour. The store owner was killed as were Jefferson's companions. He alone was accused of murder and sentenced to die for the crime.

Grant Wiggins is approached by Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma, and Grant's own aunt, Tante Lou, to help Jefferson die like a man (not like the hog, to which his own defense attorney likens him) and to accept God into his life before his death. Grant fights an internal battle. He wants to leave the black quarter; to go far away and start over with the woman he loves; to leave behind the haunting memories of his childhood years. As a teacher, he is convinced he's fighting a battle he can't win, working with children whom he feels have no future in his hometown. Grant and Jefferson form a strange bond; one that carries to the end of the book.

The story line is incidental to the novel, giving motivation to Gaines' characters who carry the action very well. You, the reader, are placed in each individual's head and hear their unspoken thoughts; their inner battles; their sadness and their few joys; their determination to carry on in spite of overwhelming odds that they will achieve very little in their lives; their belief in a higher being and the comfort that it brings them.

Gaines, who penned that wonderful story The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, writes knowledgeably of a small Cajun town in the 1940s, and of the segregation that still existed. He reveals the small slights and hurts inflicted on the black residents by the white population daily; the narrow minded white injustices that could turn a black life around on a whim. This book got to me. I felt ashamed of my forebears who might have been as cruel in everyday petty ways as the white men and women who populate this book. I learned what it would have been like to live black in a small southern town with little to look forward to but hard work.

A Lesson Before Dying does not preach. It simply but eloquently places before the reader a slice of black life in the South in the 1940s.

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