This is one of those books that is difficult to write about. I am unsure why this is… The book is beautifully written, it clearly captures the climate (both physical and socio-political) of Louisiana in the 1940s, it is filled with marvelous and rich characters and it is finely structured.
The challenge in discussing this book comes from the weight of the subject matter.
In short, this book oozes profoundness. On the surface it about Jefferson, an innocent black man convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to execution by electric chair. On a deeper level, the book explores the complexities of what it actually means to stand tall and be a man. It confronts the reader with the uncomfortable situation where the characters know not to question the conviction and sentence, and instead go about ensuring that Jefferson goes to the chair knowing his self worth.
Surprisingly, this book does not read like other books which explore the same subject and setting. It is not the type of text which tries to deconstruct the dynamic between White and Black in the South and the racism inherent in the social system of the time. Rather, it engages with the way that individuals and communities respond to that system, exploring how different characters negotiate the path between the own morals and ethics and the reality of the time in which they live. On one level, the book is frustrating because the characters’ own efforts are so limited by their lack of freedom. On another level, there is a sense of euphoria present in the way that each character finds his or her strength to change both themselves and others.
Parts of this book reminded me of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, particularly in terms of the themes and the notion of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. I was also reminded of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying – the titles are so close and Faulkner’s book is set in a town called Jefferson, which is the name of Gaines’ protagonist. (Although, I will have to revisit Faulkner to see if the similarities extend further!)
The lesson of this text is clear: “I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.” There is no doubt that there is value in this notion. And, while I was left breathless and tingling by the book’s ending, there were times when I found that there was something lacking in this narrative. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that there were some relationships which were distracting – like that between Grant and Vivien – or maybe it was just that the depth of the social comment was so intense that other parts of the narrative slipped away from me.
It is certainly a worthwhile read and I expect that I will be mulling over this story’s narratives for quite some time.