The best novelists bring us important news long before it lands in the headlines, and that was certainly true of Ernest Gaines, the Oscar, Louisiana native who has died at 86.
Today’s discussions about the legacy of American slavery underscore its continuing implications, but that reality was certainly nothing new for Gaines. In “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” his breakout 1971 novel, Gaines chronicled a title character whose life extends from slavery into the jet age, a compelling reminder that a shameful institution was much more recent than we’d like to believe.
Gaines was equally prescient in “A Lesson before Dying,” his 1993 novel about a black man executed for a crime he didn’t commit. The subsequent emergence of DNA testing has revealed many such cases of wrongful conviction, but Gaines was keen to the peril of such injustice before it became a national conversation.
A particularly poignant aspect of “A Lesson Before Dying” involves Grant Wiggins, a schoolteacher recruited to counsel the doomed convict before he dies. Wiggins wonders whether the wisdom of books has any real bearing on the bitter circumstances of a man facing oblivion.
The novels Gaines wrote are an answer to that question. His work cultivated empathy among readers from all walks of life — no small thing in a nation and world still too plagued by division. They made a difference — and will continue to make a difference even though Gaines is gone.
He will be missed. But the best part of Ernest Gaines is still on the bookshelf, waiting for new generations of readers to discover the gifts of a Louisiana treasure.