About the Book
A young black named Jefferson is a reluctant party in a shoot-out in a liquor store in which the three other men involved are all killed, including the white store owner. Jefferson, the only survivor, is accused of murder. At the trial, the essence of the defense is that the accused, a lowly form of existence lacking even a modicum of intelligence, is incapable of premeditated murder. His lawyer argues: "Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." But Jefferson is condemned to death.
Grant Wiggins, who left his small rural black community to go to university, has returned to the plantation school to teach children whose lives promise to be not much better than Jefferson's. But he wonders whether he has the will to take off north or west like so many before him who knew it was the only way to climb out of a centuries-old rut. He is grappling with his own situation when Jefferson's godmother and Grant's aunt persuade Grant to impart something of himself, of his learning and pride, to Jefferson before his death-to prove the lawyer wrong.
A Lesson Before Dying tells the story of these two men who, through no choice of their own, come together and form a bond in the realization that sometimes simply choosing to resist the expected is an act of heroism. Ernest Gaines brings to the novel the same rich sense of place, the same deep understanding of the human psyche, and the same compassion for a people and their struggle that have informed his previous, widely praised novels.