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A Lesson Before Dying [School & Library Binding]

Ernest Gaines
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (402 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 1 1997 Vintage Contemporaries
From the author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman comes a deep and compassionate novel. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Oprah Book Club® Selection, September 1997: In a small Cajun community in 1940s Louisiana, a young black man is about to go to the electric chair for murder. A white shopkeeper had died during a robbery gone bad; though the young man on trial had not been armed and had not pulled the trigger, in that time and place, there could be no doubt of the verdict or the penalty.

"I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be..." So begins Grant Wiggins, the narrator of Ernest J. Gaines's powerful exploration of race, injustice, and resistance, A Lesson Before Dying. If young Jefferson, the accused, is confined by the law to an iron-barred cell, Grant Wiggins is no less a prisoner of social convention. University educated, Grant has returned to the tiny plantation town of his youth, where the only job available to him is teaching in the small plantation church school. More than 75 years after the close of the Civil War, antebellum attitudes still prevail: African Americans go to the kitchen door when visiting whites and the two races are rigidly separated by custom and by law. Grant, trapped in a career he doesn't enjoy, eaten up by resentment at his station in life, and angered by the injustice he sees all around him, dreams of taking his girlfriend Vivian and leaving Louisiana forever. But when Jefferson is convicted and sentenced to die, his grandmother, Miss Emma, begs Grant for one last favor: to teach her grandson to die like a man.

As Grant struggles to impart a sense of pride to Jefferson before he must face his death, he learns an important lesson as well: heroism is not always expressed through action--sometimes the simple act of resisting the inevitable is enough. Populated by strong, unforgettable characters, Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying offers a lesson for a lifetime. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Not To Be Missed! June 10 2005
We have read this book before. We have heard these lessons taught and we have seen what happens when we refuse to learn them. We heard the voice of innocence lost in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout realized that racism for the sake of tradition is still racism. Now, in A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines, gives us a voice from the other side of the tracks.
Grant Wiggins is a young man in the south, during the days of "Separate but Equal". He's six years out of University, a little too educated for most white folks' taste, but he keeps his learning in line by teaching at the black school in the quarter (short for ex-slave quarters) on the old plantation where he lives with his Aunt. He's resigned himself to his fate. He knows the rules and he plays by them. He ends sentences addressed to white men with "sir", and he doesn't look a white man in the eyes unless the white man is speaking to him. He'd be angry if he thought it wasn't pointless.
Then comes along an event that changes everything. Not so much his world, as much as the way that he sees it. His old Aunt's friend's godson, has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This puts him on trial for the murder of a white man. His court appointed defense attorney appeals to the jury of 12 white men, that Jefferson, guilty though he may be, should not be put to death. "What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." Even with such a strong argument, the jury gives him the death penalty.
These are the words that changed the course of Grant Wiggins' life. Jefferson's godmother wants "the teacher make him know he's not a hog, he's a man. I want him know that 'fore he go to that chair...".
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5.0 out of 5 stars Lessons well learned Feb. 10 2005
A LESSON BEFORE DYING is about relationships. Relationships between a man and a woman, a man and his family, and a man and society. All incorporated in a wonderful and powerful story. It takes place in the 1940's where a young black man will be executed for the murder of a white store owner. During the trial, his lawyer tells the jury of white men that executing the young man would be like strapping a hog to the electric chair. His godmother doesn't want the world to see a hog executed, but a man. So the local black schoolteacher's services are offered up to make sure that no "hog" is to be executed. It is a wonderful book. It is the perfect example of "walk softly and carry a big stick". Gaines does this literally. The language is elegant which makes the emotions all the more powerful. I was moved. Read this book, not because it is Oprah's pick, read it if you are a fan of a good story. You will not be disappointed. Must also recommend THE CHILDREN'S CORNER by Jackson McCrae for another great read-though nothing along the lines of A Lesson, it is riveting and compelling with many stories set in the south. Enjoy!
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful and Moving Novel May 13 2004
By Amy
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines is an excellent story about duty and heroism. It takes place on a small Southern plantation outside of Bayonne, Louisianna in the 1940's. At this time in America when society is still torn by racial segregation, an innocent black man named Jefferson is found guilty of robbery and murder and sentenced to death by electrocution. The majority of white men in town share the sentiment that Jefferson's life has no more worth than that of a hog's. This is where the narrator, Grant Wiggins comes in. Grant, a professor at a very primitive grade school for black children, is the only educated black man on the plantation. He is asked by Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma, and ordered by his own aunt, Tante Lou, to visit Jefferson in jail and teach him, before he goes to the electric chair, that he is not a hog but a precious human being. Grant is already unhappy and despaired with what he thinks is a futile life, teaching black children who, despite his efforts, will turn out just like Jefferson anyway. All he wants to do is run away with his girlfriend Vivian, but he is tied down by the obligation he has to his fellow black man. Although Grant is reluctant to begin visits with Jefferson, and Jefferson is just as reluctant to receive these visits, the two eventually form a very close bond. This story centers around their relationship and the lesson they teach each other about fulfilling responsibility and dying with dignity.
It is no wonder why this novel is a classic. It is eloquently written, emotionally powerful, easy to follow, and very profound in its subjects and themes. The characters are well-developed and difficult not to empathize with.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Lesson Worth Living For Feb. 21 2004
When I first started to read this book, I was a little aprehensive. Being an African-American, sometimes when I know that books deal with the oppression of my race, I frankly get upset and don't want to read it. This was not the case with "A Lesson Before Dying." Set during the 1940's in a segregated cajun community, this story is about overcoming barriers with others, but most importantly overcomming barriers within yourself. As Grant the protaganist of the story is faced with the task of educating Jefferson, a black male who is faced with the death penilty, due to a crime that he didn't commit. Grant does more than teach Jefferson to "be a man" in his last days,he teaches himself as well. Grant and Jefferson change their lives, and well as others, with the greatest lesson in life. "A Lesson Before Dying" is an excellent book to read for anyone, it causes you to look at yourself, discover the barriers you have with others, but mostly you discover the barriers within yourself, and soar to become a better person.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Not bad--but predictable in showcasing racism
This novel is set in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s. The main character is Grant Wiggins, the most educated black man in a parish where educated blacks are rare. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Lava1964
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
This is the story of Jefferson, a youn man living in rural Louisiana about 1948, who has been erroneously convicted of murdering a white shop keeper. Read more
Published on June 14 2010 by Heather Pearson
5.0 out of 5 stars A Lesson For All!
Overall I feel that this book is extremely well written. The book is centered on one main character and gives you the ability to get into his mind. Read more
Published on May 23 2005 by Spencer
5.0 out of 5 stars Grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go
This book overall was very good I thought, it had a very good ending message and I enjoyed watching the changes in the characters that Gaines developed for the reader. Read more
Published on Aug. 4 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Life and death is 1940s Lousiana.
This is a wonderful novel about segrationist Lousiana and about two men trying to become men. One is a slow, barely literate young black wrongly accused of murder, and the other... Read more
Published on July 13 2004
3.0 out of 5 stars A Lesson before Dying
This year, i really havent read much, but i've found a book that i really enjoyed, A Lesson before Dying. The book had a really good beginning, it grabed my attention right away. Read more
Published on June 2 2004 by Jessica
5.0 out of 5 stars A man handling a difficult task.
This book really hit me hard. I grew up in the deep South in the 1960's and witnessed some of the segregation and attitudes that fill this story. Read more
Published on April 23 2004 by Michael Bond
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic!
This book was just fantastic! The writing style and themes are as brilliant as McCrae's "Bark of the Dogwood" or "Cry, The Beloved Country. Read more
Published on April 3 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars WOW!
First off i would like to say that I was suprised that a classical book would trigger my individual book taste...but i was truly impressed. Read more
Published on March 14 2004 by tonisha
1.0 out of 5 stars This book sucked.
Ugh. I had to read this bok for school and it sucks. Preformatted, horrible, and boring. Dave is so wrong with his review. The only lesson that I learned is that the book sucks.
Published on March 2 2004 by Matt L
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