Over the holidays, I spent every spare moment I had reading Ernest Gaines. Somewhere (I’ve now forgotten where), Gaines says that he writes characters with character to develop his own character and to hopefully stretch the character of his readers. As a writer, I admire Gaines. As a human being, I read to be stretch by him.
Here’s a great little video intro to Gaines and his powerful story of an execution in the South. A Lesson Before Dying is, strikingly, the only account of an execution that I’ve ever read by an African-American author. I love Helen Prejan. I’m grateful for A Saint on Death Row. But this is different. Character-stretching different.
In an essay on writing, Gaines says that readers often ask him why his young heroes have to die. His answer gets at the heart, I think, of how his characters are stretching me.
I tell the black students who ask me why must my young me die that young men who tried to change conditions have always died. Two thousand years ago a child was born who would be nailed to a tree thirty-three years later for trying to change conditions. Today, so much of what that young man died for has been interpreted so poorly that other young men may have to die in order to get it back in the right direction.