A Painted House, by John Grisham

This 2001 work is a different Grisham novel, not a thriller, not one centered on the law. And this is precisely why I was drawn to it. It is the story of a seven-year old boy, Luke Chandler, who lives with his family in the cotton fields of Arkansas. Luke narrates the struggles of this farm family—presumably based on Grisham’s own youthful origins—as his parents and grandparents try to survive their hardscrabble life against a context of human evil and natural disaster.

The story encompasses just a few months in the fall, but they are key months to these farmers, since this is when the cotton is harvested. It is also when a family learns whether it has made a profit or sunk deeper into debt. But a family cannot harvest its cotton alone, and so the Chandlers hire migrant Mexicans, who come north to make money, as well as poor people from nearby hill country. This year, it is the Spruill family, who leave their Ozark home to earn money.

The arrival of these cotton pickers adds drama to Luke’s life. He takes his own family for granted—that is, his grandparents, Pappy and Gran, and his father and mother. He also has a young uncle, Ricky, off fighting in Korea. Since he has no one his own age to relate to, Luke regards the absent Ricky as just an older brother, and, like the whole family, yearns for him to come home. Luke is also taken with pretty girls, reflecting still more awareness of the world, and he is fascinated by teenager Tally Spruill. Although he is too young for it to be a sexual attraction, he is not too young not to be disappointed by her own subsequent betrayal of their friendship.

There is continual drama in this novel, but it stems from a series of interesting events rather than one dramatic development that grows more and more complex. There is the tension of picking the cotton on long hot days, and wondering what price one will get when one takes it into town. There is tension between the Mexican group and the Spruills, but also within each grouping, a tension that produces a brutal murder and a seduction and elopement. Then comes, separately, the tension of a birth everyone wants to conceal from town gossip. There is also tension, as the hot sun is replaced by rain, and then by a flooding that threatens the harvest. For without a full harvest, of course, the family finances will flounder.

Amid all this drama, there are also quieter moments that lend substance to narrator Luke and to his family. Luke is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, and dreams of playing for them one day, just as other children dream of playing for their favorite team. Trips to town for either supplies or entertainment also lend variety and moments of escape. Finally, the unity of the family, and its idealism, is represented by the painting of the family farmhouse—thus bringing more continuity to this work, as well as the dreams that lurk within these struggling farmers.

What we have here is an old story, an innocent boy’s exposure to the harsh world of reality, a reality brought by the evil in men as well as by the reality of Mother Nature. It is also a reality that the boy Luke learns to accept, indeed is forced to accept. Which means that the sad and moving ending to this novel is colored by a vision of hope. And so, as life brings change, one senses that Luke and this family will survive.

One does wonder, however, if this was too much a positive ending, or a superficial ending, for literary critics. For, when published, this work did not receive many favorable reviews. It was welcomed as a literary attempt, but was faulted for its shallowness. It was criticized frequently for its lack of black characters and any racial tension. But that, clearly, was not what Grisham wanted to write about. He wanted to portray the difficult life of cotton farmers, and how they fought nature and worked around another kind of social tension—the tension between the middle-class and the poor.

In sum, these critics wanted Grisham to write another kind of novel. And so, when they addressed the novel he did write, they labeled it superficial. The family is also called stereotypical. Pappy’s leadership is unchallenged. Gran practices folk medicine and makes great biscuits. And mother has her vegetable garden. The social context is shallow, critics wrote, because there are no blacks. And the plotting is weak, they also wrote. They did not acknowledge that farming life itself is slow, since it follows the slow processes of nature—and one deals with an environment in which one must fight fatigue, the hot sun, and tumultuous rainstorms.

These critics are also looking for an adult world, not the world of a seven-year-old boy. This precocious boy, who is conveniently able to eavesdrop on the conversations behind adult decisions, is for them either too precocious or not precocious enough. Or old enough. But it is the boy’s innocence that Grisham also wishes to convey. And how that innocence slowly accommodates itself to the reality of cotton farming.

There are moments of high drama, of course. There is a beating the entire town sees. And the issue of how the perpetrator should be punished. There is also a brutal murder that Luke witnesses. Should he report it, after the killer threatens to kill his mother if he squeals? This is another interesting moral issue that the novel only touches upon. And there is the disappearance of Tally, and how this disillusions Luke, raising another moral issue. But such drama comes from isolated moments, a drama that has in common two alienated characters, two representations of evil, but offers no inevitable connection in which each act leads inevitably to the next.

Grisham’s subject, to sum up, emphasizes social tension, but it has nothing to do with race. One critic points out that blacks represented only three percent of the population of the county in which the real Black Oak, where this novel is set, is located. One may surmise, indeed, that Grisham chose this town for precisely that reason.

One may also conclude that Grisham has written here a novel of youth and innocence that earns him a certain literary status. It is not a great novel, but it is a worthwhile one. Indeed, here is a wish that he would more often leave the commercial world of trial lawyers and write more novels like this one. (November, 2017)

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