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here are no lawyers, court trials or convoluted
conspiracies in A Painted House, proving that
John Grisham can write more than legal fiction.
Instead, he revisits his own childhood to paint an evoc-
ative picture of life on an Arkansas delta cotton farm in
the early 1950s.
The tale is narrated by Luke Chandler, with all the can-
dour and innocence of a precocious seven-year-old. Grisham’s
talent for observation and dispassionate recollection brings back
the emotions of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, but without the
dysfunction of the McCourt family.
The first paragraph sets the tone for the whole book: “The hill
people and the Mexicans arrived on the same day. It was a
Wednesday, early in September 1952. The Cardinals were five
games behind the Dodgers with three weeks to go, and the sea-
son looked hopeless. The cotton, however, was waist-high to my
father, over my head…” In four sentences, Grisham establishes
a time and place when radio was the main link to the outside
world and the crop was the most important thing in life.
Edward R. Murrow presented the news and any mention of Korea
got the complete attention of a family with a boy serving in the
thick of the action in that confusing war.
Luke lived with his parents and grandparents, in an unpainted
house on 80 rented acres. Every year, they needed extra labour
for the crucial two-month harvest season that determined
whether they could keep afloat financially for another year, and
every year, a different cast of Mexican migrant workers and “hill
people” from the Ozarks would be hired.
The mixture of hill people camped in front of the unpainted
house and the Mexicans in the barn out back was a volatile one.
Grishammanages to spice this mixture with two savagemurders,
an illegitimate birth, a tornado and a flood – not exactly a bucolic
coming-of-age saga.
The men in Luke’s life, his father and his grandfather Eli (Pappy)
Chandler, were hard-working farmers. Fortunately for Luke, both
of these strong, silent men had time to take a little boy fishing or
throw a baseball with him.
They surrounded him with love and support in their own ways
(along with some uncompromising discipline).
Luke had a special love for his wild young Uncle Ricky, who was
serving in Korea. Ricky had taught him some interesting swear
words andmade Luke aware that there could bemore to life than
church and picking cotton.
John Grisham
Doubleday, 388 pages, $37.95
Willa McLean
is a
freelance writer who
lives in Brampton.
A Painted House
In Gran and Mother, Grisham has created two strong,
compassionate women who have made the neces-
sary compromises to nurture a three-generation
family in a small house and also look after the hill
people and the Mexicans on their property.
In this close family, though, Luke and his Mother have
a secret pact. It was firmly established that “never,
under any circumstances, would Luke stay on the
farm.” Mother made sure that Luke, even at seven, understood
the economics of cotton farming – “Good crops or bad crops, it
didn’t make any difference.”
Luke’s main goal in life, therefore, was to eventually play baseball
for the Cardinals. His immediate goal was to go back to school
with a bright-red Cardinal warm-up jacket which he had seen
illustrated in that annual edition of American dreams, the Sears
Roebuck catalogue.
It was only the vision of the jacket that made the daily drudgery
in the cotton fields even remotely endurable. Luke spent his days
“tearing the fluffy balls from the stalk…afraid to slow down be-
cause someone would notice…My fingers would bleed, my neck
would burn, my back would hurt.”
Always, though, there was the knowledge that 10 days of hard
labour would earn him the $7.50 needed to buy that wonderful
A Painted House will appeal particularly to anyone with any rural
or small-town memories. Grisham totally captures the ambience
of the annual fall picnic – tables laden with salads and fried chick-
en and everyone vying for Mrs. Cooper’s homemade peanut but-
ter ice cream.
The annual baseball game played afterwards crystallized the
ongoing rivalry between the Baptists and the Methodists. “The
Methodists thought they were slightly superior, but as Baptists,
we knew we had the inside track to God.”
Another telling observation, “Most things were sinful in rural
Arkansas especially if you were a Baptist…It was straightforward,
unwavering and without loopholes, compromise, or wiggle
room.” (This perhaps explains why a certain Arkansas president
kicked over the traces in such a spectacular manner.)
A Painted House started out as a series of magazine articles and,
at the insistence of publishers, evolved into this book.
Now it cries out for a sequel. Read it and enjoy.