Friday, September 27, 2013

The Last Juror

My first foray into the world of author John Grisham was the book The Brethren. This choice was made not out of considered research, but because the book was available. The story was predictable and plodding, without great character development or in-depth layering. However, it wasn't horrible and I decided to try another Grisham book, The Last Juror. This work was evidently crafted, layered, poignant, and sweet. There was nothing contrived or implausible. Just good story telling from start to finish that kept me turning the pages.

The story takes place in the early to mid-1970s in Clanton, MS, a small backwoods southern town. At this time the deep south was still markedly segregated, although the first tentative and anxious steps toward integration were being taken. There was a very uneasy tension between the blacks in their portion of town and the whites in theirs. We meet the narrator of the story, William Traynor, a young man who has just gone through journalism school at Syracuse, but who essentially coasted through, without much motivation or energy. Through a connection made by his aunt, he ends up working as a reporter at the small Ford County Times newspaper. We are introduced to the various townspeople, a collection of folks such as you might meet in any small town. As an outsider, William is often dealt with coolly, kept at arms length. However, he is given an opportunity to purchase the paper and he jumps at the opportunity. Slowly he works to bring the paper to the modern age and along the way he slowly becomes an accepted part of the town. His attitude and approach go a long way toward helping with the integration of the town, weaving the stories of black and white simply and honestly across the pages of his paper.

The main headline in the Times in 1970 involved a man named Danny Padgitt. Born into a clan of lawless thugs, who are involved in every illegal activity that you can imagine. This family is comfortable keeping to themselves in their own corner of the world. However, one night after a night of drinking, Danny rapes and murders a local woman. He is convicted of the crimes, but his family has greased enough palms to ensure that his time served will be short and comfortable. When Danny is eventually paroled, two of the jurors from his criminal trial are murdered. The town reaches a boiling point and nobody feels safe. In this backdrop, we get to enjoy the growing friendship between William and a local black woman named Calia Ruffin, who served on the jury that convicted Danny. Calia is a woman deeply devoted to her large family and her Christian roots. We watch as this courageous woman deals with a very difficult time of racial stereotypes, but manages to maintain her deep faith and her love for life through all of the struggles that she faces. This was a gem of a story, perhaps not for folks looking for a white-knuckled, fast-paced thriller, but it made an impression on me.