Memories, Cotton, and Murder

Author: John Grisham

When you think of John Grisham, you think legal thriller, subterfuge, big money vs regular people, schemes and twists and turns galore. You don’t think of a To Kill a Mockingbird style, coming-of-age novel filled with subtle truths about people, about things seen in the depths of a somber night. This, however, is the kind of story A Painted House tells.

It starts with Luke Chandler, a seven-year-old rural farm boy whose dreams of big-league baseball are getting him through a grueling summer picking cotton in the Mississippi fields with his family, hired “hill people,” and a literal truck load of Mexicans. In Luke’s world, he is concerned about avoiding the endless hours of picking, about his new baseball jacket, and a little bit about his sudden feelings for an older, beautiful hill girl. As the summer evolves, however, he becomes enmeshed in secrets he cannot understand, and as he skulks behind the scenes, he sees the beginnings and endings of a feud between two brutal men pitted against one another in a dusty, far away farm.

A Painted House sings with memories. They are not necessarily our memories (yours truly was born in the South, yes, but in the suburbs and has only seen farms in passing.) Still, there is an odd sense of nostalgia here. Rumor (and many, many write-ups) have it that this story evolved from Grisham’s own childhood, and perhaps that is why everything is so vivid, yet sepia toned with the warmness of memory and the empathy and understanding brought about by time and experience. While Luke does not fully understand many of the things he sees, or even the threats levied against him, the author now does, and somehow this subtle balance is struck, with moments of humor, poignancy, and (of course) Grisham’s ability to surprise and shock in a realistic way.

cotton field at sunset

Image by Charles McCrea from Pixabay

It was hard to watch this story end. The world just called to readers, and after the revelation, we wanted to follow on with Luke. To see how he comes out the other side of this event that tears away his childhood innocence and leaves him exposed to the evils of the world. Seven seems so young to grow-up, especially in this way, witnessing these very real struggles and the clash of two hardened personalities destined for violence. The writing itself lulls us into the world, so when the shock comes, we too feel betrayed to discover that the safety net is false, the world a terrifying place, anything possible and nowhere to run.

This is a different sort of Grisham story and, arguably, a more memorable and powerful one. I have long since run out of shelf space, yet after I finished the audiobook with its gorgeous narration, I purchased the fancy hardcover. While it is unusual for me, I see myself returning to this book to read it again and again; like To Kill a Mockingbird, I expect that each subsequent reading will reveal a new facet, a new insight. Highly recommended.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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