Two black men (one a teacher, the other a death row inmate) struggle to live, and die, with dignity, in Gaines's most powerful and moving work since The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). The year is 1948. Harry Truman may have integrated the Armed Forces, but down in the small Cajun town of Bayonne, Louisiana, where the blacks still shuffle submissively for their white masters, little has changed since slavery. When a white liquor- store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent black bystander Jefferson gets death, despite the defense plea that ``I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.'' Hog. The word lingers like a foul odor and weighs as heavily as the sentence on Jefferson and the woman who raised him, his ``nannan'' (godmother) Miss Emma. She needs an image of Jefferson going to his death like a man, and she turns to the young teacher at the plantation school for help. Meanwhile, Grant Wiggins (the narrator) has his own problems. He loves his people but hates himself for teaching on the white man's terms; visiting Jefferson in jail will just mean more kowtowing, so he goes along reluctantly, prodded by his strong-willed Tante Lou and his girlfriend Vivian. The first visits are a disaster: Jefferson refuses to speak and will not eat his nannan's cooking, which breaks the old lady's heart. But eventually Grant gets through to him (``a hero does for others''); Jefferson eats Miss Emma's gumbo and astonishes himself by writing whole pages in a diary—a miracle, water from the rock. When he walks to the chair, he is the strongest man in the courthouse. By containing unbearably painful emotions within simple declarative sentences and everyday speech rhythms, Gaines has written a novel that is not only never maudlin, but approaches the spare beauty of a classic.
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