"I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be."
This isn't a bad book. In fact, it is rather good. It is an absorbing read, and I stayed up late into the night to finish it. But, I'm not a huge fan of it.
I can appreciate the writing. I can appreciate the message. I can see why this is one of those "modern classics" that made its way onto my list. It serves a distinct purpose. It showcases a nasty side of American history, and it does it well.
But, I am left feeling like I was cheated somehow. I mentioned in my "Book Stats" post that I had read this before in high school. Back then, it was overkill. We watched the movie version. We watched the Oprah special on the novel. We read articles with interviews from the author. We researched the time period. We wrote reflective journals. It was all too much for me, and I felt, at the time, like my teacher was over-teaching the novel to us. It felt like we were being preached at.
Like I said, this really is a wonderful novel with a powerful message. A young black man, Jefferson, is sentenced to death after being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A teacher, Grant Wiggins, is asked to go and speak with the boy to teach him to "be a man" before he is executed. And the whole thing is done really well, with the highlight being the journal excerpts from Jefferson. They were truly passionate and powerful and delivered a great emotion than the rest of the novel put together.
My real issue with the novel is that I feel it was told from the wrong point of view. By following around the teacher, we see a much more...preachy side to the teachings he gives to Jefferson in the jail cell. And while I understand Gaines was also telling us Wiggins story alongside Jefferson's-to contrast the lives of these two black men who grew up in the same area-it seemed too...overdone. I would much rather have read a novel from Jefferson alone-been further inside his feelings as he awaited state-mandated death.
It is also that I had little interest in Grant. Some of the scenes with Grant interacting with other characters made me twitchy. I also wanted to hit him at another point. I cannot relate to a character who belittles the people around him, complains about the life he was given, yet does nothing to change it. I see a lot of talk in Grant and little action. And as a man who is a teacher, I would hope he would be more inspired to reach out to the youth of the town he grew up in. Instead, he is bitter about many things and seems to only do things because they are expected of him. I have a hard time relating to someone like that, and since most of the novel follows Grant and his selfishness, I had a hard time just swallowing it.
Perhaps it is my tainted view leftover from high school, but it didn't seem as powerful as it could have been and that makes me horribly sad. Or, maybe I am just too darn picky. I also think there are many other novels that deliver the same kind of message, but in a more powerful and lasting way (coming to mind are two novels I read this summer-To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple).
Whatever the case, the novel didn't do it for me and I am left feeling pretty uninspired (it does happen from time to time).
"And that's all we are Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood. until we - each of us, individually- decide to become something else. I am still that piece of drifting wood, and those out there are no better. But you can be better."