The Elusiveness of Dignity

I don't want no hog to go set in that chair." Miss Emma's wish fuels the action in this simply told but evocative novel. This black matriarch in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s wants her godson to "die like a man," and she asks the local schoolteacher, Grant Wiggins, to accomplish this change.

Her godson Jefferson is a reluctant participant in a shoot-out in a liquor store in which the store's owner and the two robbers are all killed. Jefferson is accused of murder, found guilty, and sentenced to die. His lawyer's defense is that he is so intellectually incompetent that he is incapable of premeditated murder. The lawyer says, "Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

Grant, who left his small rural black community to go to university, has returned to teach at the one-room schoolhouse in this Cajun community. He wants to escape, to leave the endless cycle of poverty and move elsewhere with his girlfriend, Vivian. But she is afraid of losing her children to her estranged husband if she runs off. And Grant cannot muster the courage or disgust or whatever it takes to leave. He hates his job because he sees no hope for the children he teaches. They, like he, are stuck in a centuries-old rut, enslaved to the ruling white society.

The two men come together and their fates intertwine when Miss Emma and Tante Lou, Grant's aunt, persuade him to visit Jefferson in jail. Grant, who narrates the story, soon realizes he has his work cut out for him, since Jefferson sees himself as a hog. The novel's main suspense consists of this: Will Jefferson become a man before he is executed? Gaines keeps the suspense alive, but he does so much more.

He takes us through Grant's conflicts with himself, with Vivian, with Tante Lou, and with Rev. Ambrose, who wants Grant, an agnostic, to help him "save"

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Sojourners Magazine January 1994
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