A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines is a story about a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time who ends up on death row for a murder he didn't commit. The story takes place in the South, some time around the '50s. I don't think it ever said that specifically, but that's the feel I got anyway. The accused man is black, the victim is white. I thought the book would focus more on the trial and whether or not he should be convicted, but it focuses more on what happens afterward, when he's on death row.
While on trial, the defense attorney refers to Jefferson, the accused, as a hog who can't be held responsible for his actions. The main character, Grant, is asked to visit with Jefferson after he's convicted and help him become a man. I got the feeling that Jefferson might have some developmental disabilities, which adds to the difficulties of trying to teach a man who knows he's about to die.
The lesson I learned from this book is that no matter what life throws at you, you have to handle it with dignity. Even when you're about to die, your life is worth something. For Jefferson, is able to be a hero to his "nannan" by dying with dignity, like a man.
The book also addresses feeling out of place - Grant is the only college-educated black man in the area. He's teaching kids whose priority is helping their families with farmwork, who are unlikely to go anywhere. He's trying to reach kids of all ages in a one-room schoolhouse with few supplies. He starts to see his situation as hopeless and has to learn his own lesson as he teaches Jefferson.
While I enjoyed this book, there was something just a little off for me. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I think it was something about the writing style. It wasn't anything obvious, just something that kept this from being a great book. It was good, just not great.