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Gaines' new novel a near miss

By: HART WILLIAMS Contributing Reviewer
Date: 08/08/93


Wiggins thus begins the painful odyssey that will end with Jefferson's execution: to teach Jefferson, to reach him so that he will go to the chair a man and not a "hog. "















This eye never sleeps

A Lesson Before Dying,
Ernest J. Gaines, [info TK]*     

*TK = "to come" Why? I don't know. I also don't know why "STET" means run it without corrections, as it is, and I'm sure there's a wonderful story behind EACH of these terms, but they work, and so did I, and I reviewed the original in galleys, so I didn't know how many pages, what imprint, and pricing. And, since the book is buried in my library somewhere I don't feel like looking it up now. He's got his National Book Award for this -- he doesn't need any help from me in selling the book.

Of all the phrases in the reviewer's lexicon, none is sadder than this: This might have been a great book. Not merely "good," which Ernest J. Gaines' novel of pre-civil rights Lousiana certainly is, but "great," which A Lesson Before Dying might have been. Why?

All of the elements are there. Grant Wiggins is a black schoolteacher in Bayonne, La. It is 1948. A young black man named Jefferson is in the wrong place at the wrong time: in a liquor store during a holdup, when the three other men involved are all shot to death. As the sole survivor, Jefferson is accused of murder. His white, court-appointed attorney tells the all-white court that Jefferson isn't smart enough to have planned and executed any murder.

"He is innocent of all charges brought against him," the lawyer says. "But let us say he was not. What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

It is well-meant, perhaps, in a strange way. But the defense is as ineffectual as it is wrong. Jefferson is condemned to death. Jefferson's godmother and Grant Wiggins' Tante Lou plead, cajole and manipulate Wiggins into visiting Jefferson. Why?

"Called him a hog," says Miss Emma. " `I don't want them to kill no hog,' she said. `I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet. ' "

Wiggins thus begins the painful odyssey that will end with Jefferson's execution: to teach Jefferson, to reach him so that he will go to the chair a man and not a "hog. "

Novelist Gaines, best known, perhaps, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman , gives us a world here; a place of black people living and working on the same plantation where their forebears had been slaves; a place where escape is the only salvation, and a man has lost faith.

Grant Wiggins teaches in a dilapidated church to equally dilapidated children, who, unless they are very lucky, have no better hope of a future than Jefferson does. Grant has a girlfriend, Vivian. She, too, is a teacher and is in the midst of a divorce. When it becomes final, they will marry. Like everything else, it is a half-life for Grant.

Grant Wiggins visits the sullen Jefferson, who claims to be a hog, just being fattened up for the slaughter. He makes progress by slow degrees. At length, as Jefferson goes to the chair, Jefferson is "the bravest man in that room today. " But this is the problem. At critical moments throughout the book, Gaines and Wiggins aren't present. Grant does not attend the execution. Gaines does not show us the transformation. He just tosses it in.

A Lesson Before Dying is a wonderfully written book; it is good. But having etched unforgettable characters in the reader's mind, Gaines tosses them away. There is no real resolution to Grant and Vivian's romance. There is no resolution to the conflicts of the living; only of the dead.

Hart Williams is a free-lance writer who lives in Ottawa, Kan.

1993 Hart Williams

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