What do you tell an innocent youth who was at the wrong place at the wrong time and now faces death in the electric chair? What do you say to restore his self-esteem when his lawyer has publicly described him as a dumb animal? What do you tell a youth humiliated by a lifetime of racism so that he can face death with dignity? The task belongs to Grant Wiggins, the teacher of the Negro plantation school who narrates the story. Grant grew up on the Louisiana plantation but broke away to go to the university. He returns to help his people but struggles over ``whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be.'' The powerful message Grant tells the youth transforms him from a ``hog'' to a hero, and the reader is not likely to forget it, either. Gaines's earlier works include A Gathering of Old Men ( LJ 9/83) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Bantam, 1982). BOMC and Quality Paperback Book Club alternate selections; previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/92.-- Joanne Snapp, Randolph-Macon Coll . , Ashland, Va.
Gaines's first novel in a decade may be his crowning achievement. In this restrained but eloquent narrative, the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman again addresses some of the major issues of race and identity in our time. The story of two African American men struggling to attain manhood in a prejudiced society, the tale is set in Bayonne, La. (the fictional community Gaines has used previously) in the late 1940s. It concerns Jefferson, a mentally slow, barely literate young man, who, though an innocent bystander to a shootout between a white store owner and two black robbers, is convicted of murder, and the sophisticated, educated man who comes to his aid. When Jefferson's own attorney claims that executing him would be tantamount to killing a hog, his incensed godmother, Miss Emma, turns to teacher Grant Wiggins, pleading with him to gain access to the jailed youth and help him to face his death by electrocution with dignity. As complex a character as Faulkner's Quentin Compson, Grant feels mingled love, loyalty and hatred for the poor plantation community where he was born and raised. He longs to leave the South and is reluctant to assume the level of leadership and involvement that helping Jefferson would require. Eventually, however, the two men, vastly different in potential yet equally degraded by racism, achieve a relationship that transforms them both. Suspense rises as it becomes clear that the integrity of the entire local black community depends on Jefferson's courage. Though the conclusion is inevitable, Gaines invests the story with emotional power and universal resonance. BOMC and QPB alternates. (Apr.)
YA-- No breathless courtroom triumphs or dramatic reprieves alleviate the sad progress toward execution in this latest novel by the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Bantam, 1982). The condemned man is Jefferson, a poorly educated man/child whose only crimes are a dim intelligence, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being black in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s. To everyone, even his own defense attorney, he's an animal, too dumb to understand what is happening to him. But his godmother, Miss Emma, decides that Jefferson will die a man. To accomplish just that, she brings Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the plantation's one-room school and narrator of the novel, into the story. Emotionally blackmailed by two strong-willed old ladies, Grant reluctantly begins visiting Jefferson, committing both men to the painful task of self-discovery. As in his earlier novels, Gaines evokes a sense of reality through rich detail and believable characters in this simple, moving story. YAs who seek thought-provoking reading will enjoy this glimpse of life in the rural South just before the civil rights movement.-- Carolyn E. Gecan, Thomas Jefferson Sci-Tech, Fairfax County, VA