Picks and Pans Review: A Lesson Before Dying

updated 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Ernest J. Gaines

The murder victim, a liquor-store owner named Grope, is white. Jefferson, the suspect, is black. The evidence is circumstantial, but it is enough for an all-white male jury in rural Louisiana in 1948. The subsequent death sentence is predictable. What bothers Miss Emma is that the public defender, attempting to move the jury to acquit her innocent godson, likens his intelligence to a hog's. That one dehumanizing gesture sets this remarkable book in motion.

Though best known for 197l's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines has always written thoughtfully about men (In My Father's House; A Gathering of Old Men). In Lesson schoolteacher Grant Wiggins, the novel's narrator, tells how his aunt—Miss Emma's lifelong friend—pressures him into visiting death row to gain Jefferson's confidence and reaffirm his sense of dignity. To Grant, the request seems futile. College-trained, atheistic, but tied to the South by family and a sense of belonging, Grant sees himself just as firmly entrapped by circumstance as Jefferson.

Through stark prose and a measured pace, Lesson evokes the hushed dignity its central characters seek and the hardships they endure. It finds love in the chicken Miss Emma fries for Jefferson and tension while a rural community waits for the Governor to set a date for Jefferson's execution. As Grant struggles to embrace life, and Jefferson to accept death, a memorable lesson in confronting adversity unfolds for everyone. (Knopf, $21)

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