A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines

“But let us say he was (guilty). Let us for a moment say he was (guilty). What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” – Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying.

Jefferson, an African-American man living in Louisiana in the late 1940s, is accused of a murder he didn’t commit. His lawyer uses the “hog” defence to get him off; however, this is unsuccessful and Jefferson is sentenced to death. Jefferson’s godmother feels the importance of Jefferson dying as a “man” not as a “hog”, so she enlists the narrator, Grant, to teach Jefferson how to be a man so he can die with dignity.

Grant was an interesting character in that he was the only educated black man in that community; the community expected a lot from him and the immense pressure he was under was evident. Add to that his questioning of the Christian faith and a complicated romantic relationship. A very moody character, I’m not sure how I felt about him.

I found the following quote immensely powerful as a person who abhors the death penalty regardless of how “bad” the person is: “How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? Who made them God?”

This was definitely a moving book. It stirred up feelings of indignation in me for sure.


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