' And I have always used the analogy of getting on a train from San Francisco to go to New York. I can't anticipate everything that will happen on the trip, and sometimes I don't even get to New York, but end up in Philadelphia." —Ernest J.
Gaines from "Writing A Lesson Before Dying", an essay in Gaines's father left the family early, and his mother moved to New Orleans to find work.
Gaines was born in 1933 and grew up impoverished on a cotton plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana.
In 1948, he moved to Vallejo, California, and spent much of his time at the local library reading and writing, endeavors that eventually led him to earn a creative writing degree from Stanford University, a 1968 National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, a Mac Arthur Foundation fellowship, and the National Medal of Arts.
I'd see myself, my brothers, and my friends going to that gas chamber. I wanted to write a story about an execution, so a colleague told me about this material that he had about a young man, who had been sent to the electric chair twice.
The first time the chair failed, but a year later, he was executed.That happened in 1948, the same year that I left to go to California. I met a minister who had escorted a young man to the electric chair.The electric chair at Angola was called Gruesome Gertie.Vital secondary characters punctuate the narrative, including Vivian, Grant's assertive yet patient Creole girlfriend; Reverend Ambrose, a minister whom the disbelieving Grant ultimately comes to respect; and Paul, a white deputy who stands with Jefferson when Grant cannot.White, black, mulatto, Cajun, or Creole; rich, poor, or hanging on; young, old, or running out of time—around all these people, Gaines crafts a story of intimacy and depth.He consistently does not give her the attention or respect that she deserves.He refers to her children as simply, “the babies,” and only cares about the names of his and Vivian’s future children.Set in the rural south in the 1940s during Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, Gaines’s eighth novel, , tells the story of a falsely-accused young black man on death row and a Louisiana-born, college educated teacher who visits him in prison and helps him regain his dignity.It won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993.In the tradition of Harper Lee's (1966), Gaines uses a capital case to explore the nobility and the barbarism of which human beings are equally capable.The story builds inexorably to Jefferson's ultimate bid for dignity, both in his prison diary and at the hour of his execution. Gaines wrings a hopeful ending out of such grim material only testifies to his prodigious gifts as a storyteller. I lived in San Francisco, just across the bay from San Quentin. I wondered what this person must go through the month before, the week before, then the night before.