Ernest J. Gaines was born in 1933 on a Louisiana plantation in the midst of the Great Depression. As a young boy of 9, he began his work in the fields. He spent his childhood digging potatoes, and for a days labor was rewarded with 50 cents. He was raised during this time by his aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, who showed Gaines a determination most of us could only dream of, as she cared for her family with no legs to support her. At age 15, after moving to Vallejo, California with his parents, Gaines discovered the joy of the public library.
The library greatly influenced his decision to become an author. While A Lesson Before Dying was written in an attempt to show how much racial tension there was at the time, Gaines also managed to show how one can stay close to his roots. I feel that the book was also written as a dedication to his aunt, to show how the courage of one person can affect everyone around them. The book also shows in the protagonist's (Grant) internal conflicts, that one must remain true to their heritage. It illustrates that knowledge is important, but knowledge isn't just a GED. How can one move forward in life without knowing their family's previous mistakes?
To quote George Santayana, 'Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. ' What grasped me most about the novel was Gaines' way of showing his readers that you have the ability to not only face mistakes in your past with bravery, but to turn and show the same backbone when looking as to what your future may hold. For instance, Jefferson has to relive the simple mistake of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Though wrongly accused he was, Jefferson was also able to face his execution like a man, showing unbelievable strength toward his postexistence. Grant, on the other hand, had always thought about his future.
His future with Vivian, his future in a new place. What Grant didn't see was that he did not know a single thing of his past or heritage, and before he could move on he had to know what he was leaving behind. Grant was able to show this to me by saying, 'And that's all we are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood, until we- each one of us, individually-decide to become someone else. ' While we all will become something else if we so choose, we didn't start out that was. Everything was made and created from what they originally were. No one can forget their past, because it is your past that makes you.
People should take life as it comes, and keep their eye on the future. For example, two of my dogs were poisoned in one week about a month ago. I could have cowered in one place, tried to forget the past, and stay where I was instead of moving forward. I realized I can't forget them, my past, but I have to face life without them. It will be different, but change isn't something to be feared. Since their death, I have become a person who cherishes every moment shared with someone. I can't say I started out that way. What I enjoyed most about A Lesson Before Dying was watching how Jefferson's outlook changed with Grant's visits.
I feel there are certain steps in the grueling process of grieving, and finally acceptance. I felt I knew how Jefferson felt, because I have been there, so naturally, I adored reading it. First he blamed himself for being imprisoned. He refused to speak to anyone because he couldn't find it in himself to do it. Then, Jefferson began blaming everyone for what happened to him. He lashed out because he knew he was innocwnt and there was nothing any of them could do to save him. Jefferson was angry because nothing that anyone could say would change the fact that he had to die. Next came understanding.
No, no one could stop him from being executed, but they could change the way he went. It was up to him to take the help he was being given, and die like a man. Finally, as with everything, there was acceptance. Jefferson finally understood that he could change everyone's opinion about him, and leave behind something much greater than he could ever be. When Jefferson died, he left the realization that you are not what you were born as, but what you made yourself. If I could change one thing about the novel, it would be to put Grant at the scene of the execution. I would prefer to have some closure, and I know it ould mean a lot to Jefferson to have him there. In the same token, I disagree with myself as well. I know that if Grant was there it would not mean half as much to say that Jefferson walked. Anyone can be brave if he's following someone else. That takes no true bravery. To say, simply, 'Tell Nannan I walked,' wouldn't have half the meaning it does if Grant was there to hear it. While everyone thought it was Grant who taught Jefferson, I feel that view to be backwards. Grant learned most from the man who had te courage to stand without him, so perhaps I wouldn't want to change anything after all.
In conclusion, I can honestly say that I gained a lot from one of Gaines' best works. By reading it over twice, I gained more than I ever thought I could from reading something off of Oprah's sacred book club. I read that the novel was simply a way to illustrate the South's injustice towards difference, but I don't believe it. I took away so much more than that. To me, the novel shows a symbol of determination, and change. It has shown me that you have to embrace what you are given, and cannot dwell on things people say. You can't let the mistakes you've made ruin you forever, just be sure not to make the same one twice.