A Lesson Before Dying is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shootout in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grand Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach. As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson's godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his pride to Jefferson before his death. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting--and defying--the expected.
I'll probably keep thinking about lessons learned from this book long after I've written this post. But here's the writing lessons on my mind today:
- Have your main character fight multiple battles--Grant Wiggins fights epic battles against long-established cruelties, prejudices, rules, and perceptions. He fights battles against his aunt, who pushes him to help their friend. He fights battles with his aunt and the plantation preacher about religion. He fights battles within himself about leaving the south. This poor man needed an octopus with sledgehammers to help with his multiple battles.
- Add deeper meaning to dramatic events--Jefferson's execution was scheduled around Easter, and this date was not lost on Grant Wiggins. Not only did he compare it to Jesus dying on the cross--Jefferson did too. This correlation brought deeper meaning to an already painful event.
- No need for a play by play--There's a part in this book where there's a play by play of a ... well, a play! It's a Christmas play, and several paragraphs are used to say who showed up, who's sitting by whom, and who brought what to the potluck. After two paragraphs, I skimmed through this section, making sure I didn't miss anything useful. Of course we can't get away with that now. Unless it matters to the story, that sort of thing must make a date with the cutting room floor.
- Give your main character an uncomfortable task--The plantation preacher was worried because Jefferson wasn't "saved." At this point in the book, Grant Wiggins was the only person who could really reach Jefferson. The preacher asked Grant to make sure Jefferson came to the Lord, but Grant knew he wasn't the right person for this task. He'd given up on religion long ago. When the preacher kept pushing, Grant squirmed under the pressure. Note: This push back on religion was established early. By the time the preacher started pressuring Grant, I already knew this would make him very uncomfortable
- Provide a window into another character's soul--"A Lesson Before Dying" was told in Grant Wiggins' point of view, so we only saw events through his lens. But during one of his visits to Jefferson's cell, he brought the condemned man a pencil and blank journal. He asked Jefferson to write down any thoughts or questions that came to mind. In the end, this journal is given to Grant. These journal entries broke my heart. We experience how Jefferson felt on the last days before his execution. We learn how he didn't sleep the night before, knowing he'd sleep for a long, long time. We experienced that final sunrise with him. Powerful, powerful stuff.
- Give characters unexpected outcomes--You'd think Grant Wiggins would be the hero of the story, and in a way, he was. But he'd also empowered Jefferson, and in the end, Jefferson was the character who carried the weight of surprising the town and walking tall to the electric chair. Jefferson had helped Grant as much or more than Grant had helped Jefferson. It was a powerful twist.
In my opinion, this book is a masterpiece. I read the final two chapters with a tissue in hand, and believe me, I needed it. Classics are classics for a reason, and "A Lesson Before Dying" was no exception.
Have you read this book? What were your takeaways? And do you like classics, or do you shy away from them? I'd love to hear your thoughts.