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What's the toughest assignment you've been given? A huge paper on a dead poet who writes "O!" a whole bunch? A science fair project that resulted in a massive explosion of baking soda and vinegar (those stupid volcanoes)? An art project that incorporated that horrific torture device: the (shiver) combination of yarn and glue?
Well, Shmooper, your toughest assignment has exactly nothing on the assignment given to Grant Wiggins, the protagonist of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel A Lesson Before Dying.
Grant, a teacher in small-town Louisiana, is asked to spend his free time on death row helping young Jefferson become a man before he's executed. A tall order? Yeah, it is. In fact, it's a tall order plus a short stack. But the protagonist of Ernest J. Gaines' 1993 novel isn't afraid to cover that order with syrup and dig in.
The novel has a powerful message about race and justice, and it's also an amazing look at a time in our history—not too long ago—when things were very different (and way worse) than they are now. This is a book that will make you super relieved to be living in the twenty-first century, even as it makes you furious and sad about what American life was like a few generations ago.
A Lesson Before Dying takes place eighty years after the abolition of slavery, but the black characters of this novel still live as third-class citizens. They live and work on a plantation. They are segregated from the white people in the town in every aspect of their lives, from bathrooms to movie theatres. The black school is given tattered books and a few measly sticks of firewood to burn in the winter. Black schoolchildren are evaluated, not on their reading ability or math skills, but on their physical fitness and dental health.
Oh yeah: prepare to put down this book a couple times. You'll be too furious at the injustice portrayed to see straight.
But the emotions that A Lesson Before Dying provokes are more complex than just anger. You'll be deeply saddened, like Jefferson's godmother Miss Emma. You'll feel determined, like Grant's Aunt Lou. And, like Grant, you'll feel both deeply cynical and ultimately, full of the hope of change.
Yup: this novel will put you on an emotional rollercoaster. Bring your box of Kleenex, a couple of stress balls, and a pillow to punch. Oh, and some ice cream. Ice cream pairs nicely with every emotion, in our humble opinion.
We're going to keep this simple: you should care about A Lesson Before Dying because you're a human, with a conscience and a heart. Fin.
Wait, what? You're not a human? You're a student-robot gathering information to bring back to your robot overlords? Oh. Okay, in that case a) please don't kill us with your eye-lasers and b) we'll be more than happy to give you a few more reasons why you should care about A Lesson Before Dying.
History lesson time: slavery ended in this country in the 1860s, but the persecution of black people in the South lasted for decades after under the Jim Crow laws. These are the disgusting laws that resulted in things like separate bathrooms for white people and black people, or separate drinking fountains, or designated whites-only seating on buses.
This is the world that A Lesson Before Dying explores: the world of the Jim Crow South. And it explores what happens when Jim Crow laws collide with a messy homicide case in which only a young black man is left alive at the scene of the crime.
Now, your robot mind may be calculating why this is pertinent information to bring back to your robot overlords. Well, robot-Shmooper, we'd be more than happy to let you in on that as well.
The underlying feature of the Jim Crow laws was racism: the deep-set belief that one race is inherently better than another race. And every character in A Lesson Before Dying is impacted by this racism, whether it's Jefferson, the young man wrongly accused and convicted of murder, or Grant, a schoolteacher that has to make do with the beaten-up textbooks allocated to his all-black school.
And while the Jim Crow laws are (thank goodness) a thing of the past, racism is, sadly, still absolutely prevalent. A Lesson Before Dying underlines the link between under-funded schools and the success rate of the students that attend under-funded schools: the students that attend the school that Grant teaches at overwhelming go on to work in the fields. Or, like Jefferson, they end up in prison.
Linking racism to the underfunding of diverse schools and to the success of students isn't just something that Ernest J. Gaines dreamed up when he wrote A Lesson Before Dying. This stuff is really, really real. For example, even today "students of color get less access to teachers who've had at least a year on the job and who have at least basic certification." And even today, "though 16 percent of America's public school students are black, they represent 27 percent of students referred by schools to law enforcement."
Race shows up as a factor in predicting who will go to prison at one point or another in their lives: one in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. Race is also a factor in figuring out how long people stay in jail: African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).
If this is enough to make you want to hide your head under a blanket and not come out until the world fixes itself, you're in good company: Grant, the protagonist of A Lesson Before Dying wants to do the exact same thing. But he learns a lesson (before Jefferson dies): the world isn't going to fix itself. We have to do the heavy lifting of change… and that means you too, robot-student. Not even benevolent robot overlords can wave a magic wand (or ignite their magical rainbow eye-lasers) and set things right.
It's all up to us.
The University of Louisiana has a whole center dedicated to studying Gaines' work.
A Rewarding Experience
A literary prize has been established to honor Ernest J. Gaines.
Making the Big Time on the Small Screen
The novel was adapted into a TV movie in 1999.
Gaines the Teacher
An interview with the author on teaching writing.
Cracking the Code
This interviewer asks Gaines specific questions about how his own life influenced his writing of the novel.
Just like Grant, Ernest J. Gaines' biggest influence in his life was his aunt.
Tell Us About Yourself
An interview with Ernest J. Gaines.
In the Movies
The trailer of the film version of the novel.
Listen to the first, terrible moments of the novel.
A photograph of Ernest J. Gaines.
A Book By Its Cover
The cover of the novel.
Just Watch It
The DVD cover of the film version.