THE setting is rural Louisiana, 1947-1948. A young black man has been sentenced to death for a murder he had no part in.
Slow-witted Jefferson's only crime was accepting a ride from two black men who got in a shoot-out with a white liquor-store owner that left Jefferson the sole, dazed survivor.
Pleading with the all-white jury to believe his client's story, the young man's attorney argues that the youth is too stupid to have planned a crime. And even if Jefferson were guilty, the lawyer says, taking his life would be a meaningless act: "Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair...," he concludes.
This dubious appeal to the jury's sympathy falls on deaf ears, and Jefferson is condemned to die. At this point the novel's narrator, a black schoolteacher named Grant Wiggins, is unwillingly drawn into the drama. Grant's aunt, Tante Lou, is a close friend of Miss Emma, the condemned man's godmother and only friend. The two elderly women are firmly convinced that Grant can somehow help Jefferson in his final months and days.
Grant has escaped from the cycle of poverty, repression, and violence, received his university degree, and returned to teach black children in the segregated school he attended as a boy. He loves and is loved by a beautiful, intelligent, compassionate woman named Vivian, also a teacher, whom he hopes to marry as soon as her divorce comes through. Yet he is frustrated and depressed by the hopelessness of his work, teaching children who are not very likely to escape the cycle of poverty and racism. And the
old women's request that he do something for Jefferson strikes him as even more futile.
No one even dreams of having this case reopened or of petitioning the governor for clemency. All that Miss Emma and Tante Lou have in mind is asking the sheriff to allow the schoolteacher to visit the condemned man in his cell. "I want the teacher make him know he's not a hog, he's a man," Miss Emma insists.
Visiting Jefferson in his cell, Grant finds him withdrawn, despondent, uninterested in talking to anyone or even in eating the home-cooked meals his godmother has prepared for him. The plight of this defeated man, who bitterly refers to himself as a hog being fattened for the slaughter, underscores Grant's own feelings of powerlessness. Grant lives and works in a world where he corrects his students' grammar and diction but must force himself to make those very grammatical mistakes in front of white peop le in order not to seem to be challenging their sense of superiority.
Yet after many frustrated attempts, a small but vital link forged between the teacher and the prisoner puts both men in touch with a power within themselves that no system, however unjust, can ever extinguish.
The author of seven previous books, including "A Gathering of Old Men" (1983) and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" (1982), Gaines has a gift for evoking the tenor of life in a bygone era and making it seem as vivid and immediate as something that happened only yesterday.
The power of the central story is deftly enhanced by the secondary conflicts surrounding it: Grant's uneasy rivalry with a local black preacher determined to save the prisoner's soul, and Grant's and Vivian's continual quandary as to whether to leave this place that stifles their hopes or stay and try to improve things. The white characters run the gamut from sheer arrogance through concerned paternalism to genuine decency.
Gaines's craftsmanship and conviction in writing about this world transforms what might have been a moralizing tale into a convincing moral drama.