NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • A deep and compassionate novel about a young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to visit a Black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.
"An instant classic." —Chicago Tribune
A “majestic, moving novel...an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives" (Chicago Tribune), from the critically acclaimed author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
"A Lesson Before Dying reconfirms Ernest J. Gaines's position as an important American writer." —Boston Globe
"Enormously moving.... Gaines unerringly evokes the place and time about which he writes." —Los Angeles Times
“A quietly moving novel [that] takes us back to a place we've been before to impart a lesson for living.” —San Francisco Chronicle
Gaines's first novel in a decade may be his crowning achievement. In this restrained but eloquent narrative, the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman again addresses some of the major issues of race and identity in our time. The story of two African American men struggling to attain manhood in a prejudiced society, the tale is set in Bayonne, La. (the fictional community Gaines has used previously) in the late 1940s. It concerns Jefferson, a mentally slow, barely literate young man, who, though an innocent bystander to a shootout between a white store owner and two black robbers, is convicted of murder, and the sophisticated, educated man who comes to his aid. When Jefferson's own attorney claims that executing him would be tantamount to killing a hog, his incensed godmother, Miss Emma, turns to teacher Grant Wiggins, pleading with him to gain access to the jailed youth and help him to face his death by electrocution with dignity. As complex a character as Faulkner's Quentin Compson, Grant feels mingled love, loyalty and hatred for the poor plantation community where he was born and raised. He longs to leave the South and is reluctant to assume the level of leadership and involvement that helping Jefferson would require. Eventually, however, the two men, vastly different in potential yet equally degraded by racism, achieve a relationship that transforms them both. Suspense rises as it becomes clear that the integrity of the entire local black community depends on Jefferson's courage. Though the conclusion is inevitable, Gaines invests the story with emotional power and universal resonance. BOMC and QPB alternates.