Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York, NY: Vintage, 1997. Set in the segregated South in the 1940’s, this is the story of an uneducated young black man named Jefferson, convicted of the murder of a white storekeeper, and Grant Wiggins, a college-educated native son of Louisiana, who teaches at a plantation school. Jefferson’s godmother convinces an unwilling Grant to spend time with Jefferson in his prison cell, so that he might confront death with his head held high.
Book Type:
Adult novel, 256 pp.
Reading Level:
Lexile: 750L; BJH: gr. 8-12
Bibliotherapy Themes & Questions:
Indirectly shows the inequalities imposed on blacks at that time (schools, accommodations, social); raises questions of the value of education; the path to maturity; the recognition of the gifts of others; the importance of kindness; perseverance; the nature and appropriateness of the death penalty.
Subject Headings:
African American men --Fiction.
Death row inmates --Fiction.
Race relations --Fiction.
Friendship --Fiction.
African American men --Louisiana --Fiction.
Death row inmates --Louisiana --Fiction.
Friendship --Louisiana --Fiction.
Louisiana --Fiction.
Historical fiction.
Main Characters:
Jefferson (condemned man), Grant (African-American school teacher), Miss Emma (Jefferson’s godmother), Tante Lou (Grant’s aunt), Vivian (Grant’s girlfriend).
Online Lesson Plans & Resources:
A Lesson Before Dying By: Kenney, W.P., Magill Book Reviews, 08907722
Snapp, Joanne.
Library Journal; 4/1/93, Vol. 118 Issue 6, p 130
Gecan, Carolyn E. School Library Journal, Jul93, Vol. 39 Issue 7, p 110
Booklist, 3/15/94, Vol. 90 Issue 14, p 1350

Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,009
Content Advisory:
The novel begins with the murder of a shopkeeper during a robbery and concludes with the death of the accused in the electric chair. Various characters use the offensive term “nigger” throughout the book. There are adulterous sexual scenes depicted. The grammar, diction, and (in some places) spelling of the text reflects the less-educated and colloquial style of the characters.
Recommended by: BJ Hampton