This week I read A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines as part of the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge.
This book was recommended to me and I added it to my "Want to Read" list on Goodreads. I can't remember who recommended the book, but I'm grateful that they did. It is moving story that brings the reader right into the 1940s, and the uncomfortable and tension-filled climate of the South. It is a story of an unlikely friendship that positively impacts not only two lives, but all those who came in contact with the two main characters of the book, Jefferson and Grant.
A Lesson Before Dying is about a man named Grant Wiggins who has been teaching on a plantation near Bayonne, Louisiana, for several years when another man named Jefferson is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Jefferson, who is a slow-witted man, claims he is innocent of the crime. He explains how he was on his way to a bar, but changed his mind and decided to accompany two men who were on their way to a liquor store. Upon arriving there, the two men began arguing with the store owner, and a shootout ensued. The store owner and the two men died, and Jefferson remained at the scene of the crime - the only witness to what happened.
He was arrested and tried for murder. Jefferson’s lawyer argues in court that Jefferson is nothing but a poor fool, hardly more worthwhile than a hog, and therefore incapable of plotting such a scheme. The jury quickly brings back a guilty verdict.
When Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma, hears the lawyer’s speech she is determined to help Jefferson die like a man and not like a hog. She asks Grant to help her, knowing that he will not be interested or motivated to help Jefferson.
Grant left many years prior to attend college, and he returned an educated man. Although he is upset by the injustices done to his fellow black men, he does not want to get involved in Jefferson’s case. Despite this, his aunt, Tante Lou, pressures him to help and he ultimately agrees.
When they visit Jefferson in his cell, they find that he had been listening to the lawyer's speech and now believed that the words he spoke were all true. Thinking of himself as a hog, Jefferson is both not interested and reluctant to accept any help.
During the next several visits, Jefferson continues to frustrate Grant’s attempts to communicate and be of assistance. He challenges what Grant says, he eats and makes noises like a hog, and is generally difficult to be around. Yet, Grant is patient with him.
Additional visits slowly give forth to more genuine exchanges, honest communication, and requests given that the end of Jefferson's life is nearing.
Grant and Jefferson talk more about Jefferson's death, the afterlife, religious beliefs, and standing up for one's community. Jefferson became a symbol to other African American people, and the manner in which he faces his death will affect their self-confidence and potential.
He ultimately realizes that he has become much more than an ordinary man and that his death will represent much more than an ordinary death.
Grant cannot bring himself to attend the execution, for he has grown very close to Jefferson. At the time the execution is scheduled to take place, he tells his students to kneel by their desks in honor of Jefferson. Grant steps outside the classroom, overcome with sadness and grief. As he reflects upon what is happening, he realizes that he should have been at the execution.
Minutes later, a deputy comes from the courthouse and informs Grant that the execution is over. He assures Grant that Jefferson was the bravest man in the room that morning. Grant looks out over the town, heavyhearted and numb, and discovers that he is crying.