What I Read: A Lesson Before Dying

 3/5 Pineapples

(Back to pineapples we go :))

What I Read: A Lesson Before Dying

ISBN: 9780375702709; 256 pages; Pub. 1993

I wanted nothing more than to love this book.

Ernest Gaines wowed me with “A Long Day in November.” I walked away from that story thinking, “dang, I wish I could write like that.” I walked away from A Lesson Before Dying thinking “wait…what happened?”

After I’ve thought about it for a few days I can’t help but think… nothing.

It’s the plot’s fault. The characters were solid, the language great. But it wasn’t until chapter 21 that I felt like things started happening. Twenty-one out of 31 chapters. Before that chapter, the book was mostly about the narrator, Grant Wiggins. Grant whines and complains about being “stuck” in his community and wants nothing more than to just marry his girlfriend and leave Louisiana. It’s a very flat story line, and not what I read this book to hear about.

I read this book because I wanted to know about Jefferson, the young African-American sentenced to death for, essentially, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wanted to better understand incarceration of young black men in the 1940s in order to put the problem today in perspective. Alas, that did not happen.

Until chapter 21, Jefferson wants nothing to do with people. He sits in his cell feeling sorry for himself (rightfully so), but hurts the people who love him. I really didn’t like his character through the first two-thirds of the book. The sympathy I felt for him at the beginning was swept away by his selfishness.

Then, all of a sudden, his death date is set. And BAM– Jefferson is a new man. Just like that.LessonBeforeDying2

I was really confused why he suddenly talked to Grant, why he suddenly decided he was willing to eat, and why he suddenly stopped calling himself a pig over and over. The rising action to this climax simply wasn’t there, since Gaines had spent most of the time on Grant and his woes.

After those first 20 chapters, however, I did get into the book. Jefferson became sympathetic, Grant took his “Nick Carraway” role, and I started to feel something for these people. By the end of the book, I was left frustrated and anxious. I can’t exactly explain why (no spoilers here :)), but looking at the end of Jefferson’s story, I wondered if American injustice will ever change.

The end was the only glimmer that helped me to understand today’s messed up “justice” system. Gaines wrote this in 1993; he wanted readers to look at more than just the 1940s south. Yet due to this book’s “first-draft” feel, I didn’t get the powerful takeaway I expected.

What do you think of A Lesson Before Dying? I might be the only crazy person for feeling this way about a classic, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Below the Line:

  • My “back-to-school” series is coming at you next week! I’m starting with a college post freshmen are definitely going to want to check out.
  • Went on a reading spree the past few days while I was traveling. Look for a We Were Liars review coming soon!
  • I had a half-day trip to San Francisco while I was in California this past week. It was a ton of fun! But my goodness, those hills…unlike any hills this Hoosier has ever seen. Let me know if you’d like to see a post on this trip below :)

5 thoughts on “What I Read: A Lesson Before Dying

  1. I always have high hope for any book on the “Oprah book club” but i have often been let down. E.g “Bridges of Madison County” -really!. I haven’t read any of Gaines work and I may check out “Of Love and Dust”. Great review.


    • Thanks! I also love novels written in different time periods- the English/History majors in me colliding :)

      I think “Of Love and Dust” is up next for me, too. A quick introduction to Gaines is “A Long Day in November.” It’s a novella, so only about 100 pages. I really loved it!


  2. I understand. Expecting the novel to be about Jefferson then finding out it’s more about Grant is jarring. It’s, I would say, really about the community, at least early on. Grant does grow up throughout the novel, and Jefferson help him achieve this. If interested, I’ve posted a few blog posts recently about this novel. They’re at ernestgainescenter.blogspot.com. They talk about the historical inspiration for te novel and about the community aspects.


    • I feel as if I should read the book again and really focus on what Gaines might be trying to do for the majority of the book (I can see the community idea). Putting my English major hat on might help! I enjoyed looking at your posts on Gaines’ work. He is certainly a very intriguing author.


      • Leeann,

        Glad you liked them. If you haven’t read any other Gaines books, I would suggest looking at “Of Love and Dust.” To me, it’s his best one. If you ever have any questions about Gaines and his work, feel free to email me.


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