According to his biography, Ernest J. Gaines grew up in Oscar, Louisiana on a plantation in the 1930s. He worked picking potatoes for 50 cents a day, and in turn used his experiences to write six books, including A Lesson Before Dying. While the novel is fictional, it is based on the hardships faced by blacks in a post Civil War South, under Jim Crow and 'de jure' segregation. In A Lesson Before Dying, the main story line is a sad tale in which a young black man named Jefferson, is wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, a teacher, is persuaded by Jefferson's grandmother Miss Emma to help Jefferson become a man before his execution. The struggle for Grant to get Jefferson to cooperate, and Grant's own internal development are the main plot-points; however, the background commentary on systems of racism is the main theme.
Summary & Review
The story opens with Grant recalling the trial and events leading up to it. Jefferson was on his way to a bar when he was offered a ride by two young black men. The trio went to hold up a liquor store to get drinks, but didn't have enough to pay. The two men demand to get drinks on credit and a shootout ensued, leaving Jefferson panicked in the aftermath. He grabs the money behind the counter, takes a drink and begins to run when two white men walk into the store. Of course, a young black man going to trial after the Civil War until the end of Jim Crow is bound to be unfairly and unjustly sentenced. Black men, even today are sometimes treated as guilty until proven otherwise. The prosecution spins the story, saying the three men went to the store with the intent to rob and murder Alcee Grope, the store owner. Jefferson was also accused of taking money and celebrating with booze. In one last attempt to plea for Jefferson's life, his lawyer argues he is a stupid boy, and it would be similar to executing a hog. Jefferson is sentenced to death regardless, by the electric chair.
The rest of the story, involves Grant's struggle while being the only educated black man living in an overtly racist society. He is torn by pressures from discrimination, his teaching responsibilities, Miss Emma, and his community. Gaines sets Grant up as the only one equipped to overcome the prejudices of society, yet even being the most qualified he struggles severely. Since he does not fit the black stereotype, he is faced by scrupulous eyes wherever he goes; this includes by Mr. Pichot the plantation owner, and his brother-in-law, the Sheriff Sam Guidry. Both of these men with power, question Grant's motives, and the Sheriff requires that Grant not provoke Jefferson into displaying emotion. This is obviously hard, because his main objective is helping Jefferson die like a man, with dignity; a nigh impossible act considering the troubles the boy has faced for all the years of his life.
We also see that his school is under supplied. The entire black sections of communities are also underdeveloped,...