Lost in Lit

Young and old plunge into 1940s Louisiana with a community-wide reading of Earnest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying

Photo by David Robert

Walden’s Coffeehouse is filled with teens slurping chocolatey drinks over homework, with afternoon sunlight that makes the dark wood floors and tables glow golden, and with laughter. At the center of it all is a group of women crowded around four tables that they’ve jammed together to form a T-shape. Most are young—sophomores from the same Reno High School class, in fact. Over the chatter of other patrons and the vrooming hum of a blender, they talk of racism, death, capital punishment. They talk of Grant Wiggins, the central character of Earnest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying—the book that members of the community are reading for a project called “Read. Washoe. Read.”

They don’t really like Wiggins.

“He was just mean,” says Liz Morgan-Beesley, a petite, talkative sophomore with wavy, brown hair.

“His meanness made me keep on reading,” says sophomore Schinthia Islam, a tall girl with long, black hair. “I kept waiting for his aunt to slap him.”

Pat Miller, the group’s discussion leader and KNPB Channel 5’s vice president of programming, promotion and education, asks the students, who are reading the book to get extra credit for their English class, if Grant is someone they’d like to know.

“I think he grew,” says Jen Luna, a friendly sophomore with shiny brown hair. “In the beginning, he was stubborn and ornery.”

The young and the not-so-young, the college-educated and high-school students concur. A Lesson Before Dying’s protagonist, a disillusioned black schoolteacher who returns to his backwards hometown in Louisiana after going to college in the West, just isn’t a likeable fellow. Grant tries to teach Jefferson, a black death-row inmate, how to be a man but the teacher doesn’t always exhibit admirable masculine qualities himself.

Rosemary McCarthy, a coordinator of the program and assistant professor of journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, says that she has “only about a hundred” questions that she’d ask Gaines if she had the chance. But there’s one in particular.

“Why didn’t he create a character who is instantly warm and fuzzy? … And, who did he write this book for, who did he want his audience to be?”

Reno is a long way from Louisiana in the 1940s. Yet, for the past few months, members of the community have plunged into that strange, unpalatable world filled with tough women, stubborn men, bigots and an unjust justice system. At the beginning of the year, a small committee made up of representatives from the Washoe County Public Library, Channel 5 and various community members decided to steal an idea that originated in Seattle: Asking the community to bury its nose in the same book, then to come together and talk about it in a series of small groups. She had a hunch the idea would translate well.

“This is a good community for it. People here really like to read. We hope to encourage the general public to read; it doesn’t have to be [only specific reading] groups.”

And why A Lesson Before Dying? As many of its readers admit, it is tough to get into.

“It’s a good book for a number of reasons—a good story, an accessible story. A story with lots of things to think about, talk about. There are familiar reflections: What it means to have self-dignity, what it means to be a man, what it means to have faith. … And [readers] like the sense of place—you really feel that you’re there.

“That’s what good books do.”

And Friday, Gaines will be in Reno, giving the keynote lecture at this year’s Great Basin Book Festival. McCarthy says that one reason for choosing A Lesson Before Dying as community reading project material was that Gaines is a living author. It’s always slightly easier to get living authors to come to your town.

“You don’t have to have an author [the community is reading] come to town, but wouldn’t it be great?”

Photo by David Robert

So the book-reading committee got together with the Nevada Humanities Committee, the folks who help put together the Great Basin Book Festival. The two committees lured Gaines to Reno. He’ll speak Friday at the University of Nevada, Reno, and afterward he’ll sign books.

I ask the girls at Walden’s if they’re going to the lecture. Most say yes. Jaimie Shaff says she would like to ask Gaines if he writes from personal experience. Audrey Pak wonders if there’ll be a sequel. Luna wants to know why the fictional character Grant Wiggins stayed in the south, why he didn’t flee his troubled origins.

It’s a question discussion leader Miller has, too.

“I have a huge question for myself, in my own reading,” she says to the group. “[Wiggins] escaped, and yet he came back. … Why wouldn’t you leave a town without hope, with racial discrimination?”

“He didn’t feel like he belonged there,” Pak says. “I can’t figure it out.”

“If you’re raised in a certain environment, that’s all you know to come back to,” Luna offers.

The evening after the discussion group at Walden’s, another group met at Barnes & Noble, this one led by Marianne Reger, a young, slight woman with curly brown hair. She’s a freelance grant writer and former college English teacher. While the Walden’s discussion was cozy, this one has the feel of a lively high school classroom. In a crowd of about 30, there are few who aren’t sophomores or juniors at Reno High School. For these kids, the book is required.

As Miller did in the Walden’s group, Reger asks each participant to give his or her name and basic impressions of the book before the discussion gets started.

“My name’s Raven, and I think it’s OK.”

“My name’s Patti, and I’m interested in Jefferson’s reaction, and how he’s not even trying. I mean, he’s dying, but he could put in more effort.”

“My name’s David, and I’m a little peeved with Grant.”

“My name’s Brandon, and I think this is one of the better books we’ve read in school.”

Reger leads the group in a discussion of Grant’s manhood, one of the novel’s central themes.

“What do you think of him as a role model?”

The students shake their heads. One girl remarks that she doesn’t consider Grant a man.

“What is a man in this book?”

“A white man,” a boy quips.

Photo by David Robert

“Here’s a question to you men in the audience,” Reger says, half-jokingly. “How do you learn to be a man?”

The male students release a collective uncomfortable chuckle and squirm a little in their seats.

“From … fathers,” a boy finally says.

“Role models.”

“Life experiences.”

“When you’re black, [manhood] becomes harder to define,” a girl says.

“When you’re black, being a man becomes more defined,” counters another girl. “When you’re white, if you’re a man, you’re a man.”

Brent Busboom, a teacher of one class in attendance at Barnes & Noble that night, says that the students rose to the occasion.

“It’s good for them to be in a different setting, a larger context. It’s interesting to see the dynamic.”

Busboom says that he, like his students, had troubled getting into the book at first.

“The first time I read it, I didn’t care for it. I had a day and a half to read it. I didn’t like Grant. Then, over the summer, I had a chance to re-read it, and I loved it.”

Busboom says that, though Grant’s a tough pill to swallow at first, he gets readers thinking.

“Grant thinks it’s hopeless. … I read a quote from Gandhi—'It’s not what you do, but that you do it.’ If you’re Grant in the 1940s, you think, why even do it?”

Busboom hopes that his students will learn from Grant that they need to look down the road, see the bigger picture. Looking at the moment under a microscope can produce feelings of futility.

“Our culture’s gone from being a zoom culture to being a wide-angle culture. We juggle, we multi-task.”

But it looks like Busboom’s students understand the importance of the “zoom” perspective. As the discussion wraps up, one student says that A Lesson Before Dying allows us to look back and say, “Were we really that stupid?” Another boy says that the novel shows us how far we’ve come as a nation.

Yet another student looks ahead.

“It takes books like these for our generation to look at it,” says Patti Tartaglia, one of Busboom’s students. “And [the lesson] will keep going from generation to generation.”

And, with readers like her, communities are bound to take lessons learned from books and go even further.