Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying (1993) poses one of the most universal questions literature can ask: Knowing we're going to die, how should we live? It's the story of an uneducated young black man named Jefferson, accused of the murder of a white storekeeper, and Grant Wiggins, a college-educated native son of Louisiana, who teaches at a plantation school. In a little more than 250 pages, these two men named for presidents discover a friendship that transforms at least two lives.
In the first chapter, the court-appointed lawyer's idea of a legal strategy for Jefferson is to argue, "Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." This dehumanizing and unsurprisingly doomed defense rankles the condemned man's grief-stricken godmother, Miss Emma, and Grant's aunt, Tante Lou. They convince an unwilling Grant to spend time with Jefferson in his prison cell, so that he might confront death with his head held high.
Most of the novel's violence happens offstage in the first and last chapters. Vital secondary characters punctuate the narrative, including Vivian, Grant's assertive yet patient Creole girlfriend; Reverend Ambrose, a minister whom the disbelieving Grant ultimately comes to respect; and Paul, a white deputy who stands with Jefferson when Grant cannot.
White, black, mulatto, Cajun, or Creole; rich, poor, or hanging on; young, old, or running out of time-around all these people, Gaines crafts a story of intimacy and depth. He re-creates the smells of Miss Emma's fried chicken, the sounds of the blues from Jefferson's radio, the taste of the sugarcane from the plantation. The school, the parish church, the town bar, and the jailhouse all come alive with indelible vividness.
In the tradition of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966), Gaines uses a capital case to explore the nobility and the barbarism of which human beings are equally capable. The story builds inexorably to Jefferson's ultimate bid for dignity, both in his prison diary and at the hour of his execution. That Ernest J. Gaines wrings a hopeful ending out of such grim material only testifies to his prodigious gifts as a storyteller.
The following is excerpted from Ernest J. Gaines's interview with Dan Stone.
"I used to have nightmares about execution. I lived in San Francisco, just across the bay from San Quentin. Ten o'clock on Tuesdays was execution day. I wondered what this person must go through the month before, the week before, then the night before. I'd see myself, my brothers, and my friends going to that gas chamber. I'd have those nightmares over and over.
I wanted to write a story about an execution, so a colleague told me about this material that he had about a young man, who had been sent to the electric chair twice. The first time the chair failed, but a year later, he was executed. That happened in 1948, the same year that I left to go to California.
I visited small-town sheriffs and jails. I met a minister who had escorted a young man to the electric chair. The electric chair at Angola was called Gruesome Gertie. I had a lawyer in my creative writing class who had a client on death row, and I would ask him questions. I'd ask him about the size of the strap, the height and weight of the chair. The character Paul in A Lesson Before Dying is built around this student. And that's how I wrote the novel."
"Students are always asking me, 'Do you know the ending of your novel when you start writing?' And I have always used the analogy of getting on a train from San Francisco to go to New York. It takes three or four days to get there. I know some facts.... What I don't know is how the weather will be the entire trip.... I can't anticipate everything that will happen on the trip, and sometimes I don't even get to New York, but end up in Philadelphia."
—Ernest J. Gaines from "Writing A Lesson Before Dying", an essay in Mozart and Leadbelly