Monday, January 10, 2005


I'm finally getting around to reading Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson before Dying, and so far I'm not impressed. We read a passage in a class I took years ago on J. R. R. Tolkien. We were studying heroes, specifically how heroes were defined in the "classical" age and how they're defined now.

I don't know what to think of this book. But I'm only half-way done, and I'm unsettled enough to keep reading. The gist of the story is that a black man, Jefferson, is implicated in the murder of a white man in late 1940's New Orleans. He's convicted on shaky evidence and sentenced to death. During a plea for his life, his lawyer compared him to a hog, as in, this animal is a fool, this animal has no modicum of intelligence, it would make as much sense to execute this boy as it would to execute a hog. Jefferson is sentenced to die anyway.

The narrator is a teacher, university-educated, and ambivalent about his status as an educated black man in the deep south. His aunt pleads with him to teach Jefferson to die with dignity, to die as a man, not as an animal.

But what kind of a lesson plan do you need for that? What do you say? The execution date is set. But the lesson plan is not. The teacher is unsure, and the student is reluctant at best.

The language is beautiful, the description of New Orleans is vivid, and the racial tension is ever-present, even when not explicit. The narrator doesn't know who he is, really, or what he wants, or even where he wants to live - he leaves New Orleans for a time only to return, unsatisfied.

And I, as the reader, am uneasy. But I'm intrigued enough to keep reading.

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