The Impact of One Word

I’m reading A Lesson Before Dying (1993), a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, and wondering why it took me so long to notice this marvelous work of fiction.  Following is a short scene showing how much can be done with a single simple word.  That word is “here,” and the situation digs into a donation of $10 to buy a radio for a boy in jail awaiting execution in the next few weeks.

Thelma watched me.  When I was finished, she put a wrinkled ten-dollar bill on the counter by my plate.


It was the kind of “here” your mother or your big sister or your great-aunt or your grandmother would have said.  It was the kind of “here” that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of “here” that said she wished you had it and didn’t have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then “here” it was, with a kind of love.  It was the kind of “here” that asked the question, When will all this end?  When will a man not have to to struggle to have money to get what he needs “here”?  When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man “here”?

I took the money without looking at her.  I didn’t say thanks.  I knew she didn’t want to hear it.

A Lesson Before Dying is a delicious novel because of how Ernest J. Gaines gets inside emotions and thoughts without whipping the reader over them.  It’s a disturbing novel because of the rendering  of racism in the South and how Blacks were coerced into living with it in a time when Whites held all the cards in the deck, including the jokers.  The novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  Gaines is also the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and other books.  He passed in November, 2019.


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