Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Paperback: 256 pages
• Publisher: Vintage, 1997
• Price: $13.00
• ISBN-10: 0375702709
• ISBN-13: 978-0375702709
The older and, one hopes, wiser I grow, the more I admire and respect simplicity. Simplicity is not simple. Simplicity means clean lines, all that is unnecessary pared away. Simplicity means choosing that one golden word where ten would only confuse the issue. And, that one word can be clear and true.
Ernest J. Gaines is a master of simplicity. A Lesson Before Dying is clean and clear writing, descriptions that say just enough to evoke an entire scene with all senses engaged, all heart and mind present. His dialogue is bare bone, sparse as the dialogue I so admired as a young writer-in-training, enthralled with that other Ernest—Papa Hemingway, and his unique way of capturing the way that people actually speak rather than the stilted narrative voice of the author him or herself.
“It don’t matter,” I heard him say. He was looking up at the ceiling.
“What don’t matter?”
He didn’t answer.
“What don’t matter, Jefferson?”
“Nothing don’t matter,” he said, looking up at the ceiling but not seeing the ceiling.
“It matter to me, Jefferson,” she said. “You matter to me.”
He looked up at the ceiling, not seeing it.
“Chicken, dirt, it don’t matter,” he said.
“Yeah, it do, Jefferson. Yeah, it do. Dirt?”
“All the same,” he said. “It don’t matter.” (Page 73)
Ah yes, there is that mastery, like a reincarnation of Hemingway, with an artist’s understanding of the way that life moves—not in straight lines, but in circles, ever circling on the same spot, trying out its parameters until it is known, only then shifting to the next circle, a slight distance this way, or that, or even back again. I admire this accuracy portrayed in the written word. The novel becomes life.
The life portrayed in this novel is based on two main characters, set in 1940s Louisiana, the deep south, when racism and segregation ran deep, and a black man was imprisoned just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, innocent that he might be. Jefferson is a simple-minded man who inadvertently ends up in the middle of an armed robbery, and although he has done nothing wrong, is sentenced to die by a legal system that has nothing to do with justice but everything to do with enforcing the status quo. Grant Wiggins seems, at first, Jefferson’s opposite—a black man who is educated and intelligent, a teacher at a church school. Both men, however, live in a prison, even as only one of those has tangible bars.
When Jefferson is called “same as a hog” by his own defense attorney, likening him to a dumb animal in the hopes that the jury will deem him innocent out of sheer lack of enough intelligence to commit a crime, his aunt, Grant’s grandmother, can accept the final verdict of death, but not the image of her nephew dying like an animal. She calls in a favor from Grant, who reluctantly agrees to visit Jefferson in prison and teach him to die like a man.
If this injustice, the death sentence of an innocent man, cannot be changed in a deeply racist society, then one’s attitude about it can be. Jefferson bitterly accepts being called a hog—“it don’t matter”—but the story unfolds in those gorgeously clean lines with the meetings between the two men, some of which are nothing more than sitting together in a prison cell for an hour and staring at the ceiling. There are no lectures, no fist-pounding diatribes, no soapbox rantings to vaguely disguise the views of the author in need of getting something off his chest. There is just this fly-on-the-wall observation of two men sharing space, different yet same, both locked into place, both suppressed by their life sentences to a destiny neither deserves but inflicted upon them because of their race.
So how does a man become a man? What differentiates a man from a dumb animal? Our teachers are not always those with the highest intelligence quotient. Our leaders are sometimes those who are silent, but walk to their destiny, however unfair, with clean conscience and straight spine. Whatever is done to a man matters little. What a man does to himself, and how he handles the circumstances of his life, is all that matters. Live or die, a man does so with honor. Just or unjust, a man answers to himself if he has lived with integrity. If he has, he can walk through any trial, toward any fate, with his head held high.
Edward J. Gaines was born on a plantation in Louisiana, where he is now writer-in-residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Previous books include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and several others.
~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet