The Last Juror
The Last Juror
In The Last Juror, published in 2004, John Grisham explores race relations and racism in the American South of the 1970s. Although the title may lead readers to expect a taut courtroom thriller like Grisham's earlier works, this character-driven novel follows the growing relationship between twenty three-year-old Willie Traynor, new owner of the Ford County Times, and Calia Ruffin, also known as "Miss Callie," a fifty nine-year old black woman. She is the mother of eight children, seven of whom have earned Ph.D.s—a remarkable accomplishment for the period. The "juror" of the title does refer to an important legal case that acts as the centerpiece for the book—Danny Padgitt's explosive trial for the rape and brutal murder of a young local widow. Convicted of the murder but sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death, Padgitt spends ten years in jail. When he gets out, jurors from his case start to die under mysterious circumstances.
Over the course of the story, Grisham introduces many of Clanton, Mississippi's residents and local characters, people like politicians, war veterans, and decaying aristocracy who make the town colorful and unique.
John Grisham was born on February 18, 1955, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, but for the first twelve years of his life, his family moved frequently so his father, a construction worker, could find work. In 1967, his family settled in Southaven, Mississippi where he became involved in sports.
After his high school graduation, Grisham enrolled at Northwest Junior College in Senatobia, Mississippi, and for a year played baseball for the school team. Restless, he transferred to Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, hoping to become a professional ball player. After the coach at Delta State tactfully pointed out that Grisham was not suited for a baseball career, he transferred to Mississippi State University and studied accounting with the intention of becoming a tax attorney.
Shortly after earning his law degree from the University of Mississippi, Grisham and his wife Renée returned to Southaven. There, Grisham set up a small practice as a defense attorney. In addition, from 1984 to 1990, he served in the Mississippi House of Representatives. The Grishams have two children: a son, Ty, and a daughter, Shea.
Grisham's first book, A Time to Kill, was published in 1988. He worked on it as a hobby for three years, getting up early every morning to write before going to work. Though its original print run was five thousand copies, Grisham was satisfied. By then he was working on his second book, a legal thriller titled The Firm. A "bootleg" copy circulated around Hollywood, and the film rights were bought before the book was even published. The Firm became a bestselling novel of 1991. Eventually, Grisham closed his law practice and quit the state legislature so he could become a full-time writer.
The Last Juror was published in 2004, making it Grisham's seventeenth novel in seventeen years. Some of his bestselling legal thrillers include The Client, The Pelican Brief, The Chamber, The Rainmaker, and The Runaway Jury, all of which were made into films. He has also written the autobiographical A Painted House, and the Christmas tale Skipping Christmas, the basis for the film Christmas with the Kranks.
Part 1: Chapters 1-5
The Last Juror opens with the news that through "patient mismanagement and loving neglect," the small independent newspaper The Ford County Times is going bankrupt. It is 1970, and Joyner William "Willie" Traynor, a twenty-three-year-old college dropout who works as a reporter for the paper, finds himself facing unemployment. Instead, thanks to luck and a wealthy grandmother, Willie buys the paper, intent on making his living. Just months after Willie takes over as editor, Rhoda Kassellaw, a young widow with two small children, is brutally raped and murdered. After seeing the intruder, the children run to their neighbor, Aaron Deece, who finds the dying Rhoda. With her dying breath, she names her killer—Danny Padgitt. In the meantime, Padgitt, who is half-drunk at the time of the murder, flees in his truck. He tries to make it home to Padgitt Island, the family's private kingdom in Ford County, where wanted criminals can hide and never be found. Driving recklessly, he has a bad accident on the way and is immediately arrested by the police. The incident fuels much gossip. Willie and his photographer Wiley get as much information as possible, which Willie prints, to his advantage. At Danny's bail hearing, his lawyer Lucien Wilbanks immediately threatens Willy with a libel suit and later calls the judge's attention to the paper, trying for a gag order on all proceedings. The judge praises the story in front of the packed courtroom and denies Danny bail.
Willie, who is still rather naive about the newspaper business, learns from his senior reporter Baggy Suggs that he will not be sued for libel, since he did not break the law. He also learns Danny is being held in the only decent cell in the decrepit county jail, known as "the suite." Oddly, he is being given special treatment by the corrupt county sheriff, Mackey Don Coley. After Willie does some investigating, he writes another sensational story about Danny's unusual privileges. Because the Padgitts and Lucien are unpopular, the people of the county love the story. However, soon after the article runs, a bomb is found in the Times offices. Suspicion falls on the Padgitts, who are known to be experienced arsonists, but the sheriff stalls the investigation. When Wiley is viciously beaten in his own driveway, local lawyer Harry Rex Vonner gives Willie a gun and teaches him to shoot. For a while, Willie carries the gun, but he soon tires of it and leaves the weapon in his car. Lucien holds a hearing for a change of venue for the trial, citing the local newspaper's biased coverage, and Willie is called to testify. Lucien makes him look ignorant on the stand, and Willie leaves, enraged. Around this time, Willie also meets Miss Calia Ruffin, or Miss Callie as he calls her. She invites him for the first of what will be many lunches.
Lucien withdraws his motion for a change of venue. The District Attorney Ernie Gaddis petitions for a larger and secret jury pool, and the judge grants it. Both the District Attorney and Judge Loomis fear jury tampering by the Padgitts, either through bribes or threats. In the meantime, Willie visits more with Miss Callie, who questions whether he is a Christian and worries about his soul. He learns more about her children, and publishes a two-part front-page series about the Ruffins. Lucien sends him a note praising the story. When the jury summonses go out, Miss Callie learns she is called. She dislikes judging another person, but knows it is her duty. She is the last juror picked, and is proud to be a black juror on such an impor00tant case. The trial begins, and one of the witnesses for the prosecution is Ginger McClure, Rhoda's sister. After the opening day's proceedings, the judge sequesters the jury so they will not be influenced by the newspaper, or easily threatened or bribed by the Padgitts. Later that night, Ginger asks Willie for a drink and they end up spending the evening together. She sleeps at his apartment, but nothing sexual happens between them.
The trial continues, with the State calling all of its witnesses. Its last witness is Mr. Aaron Deece, the man who heard Rhoda's last words. Lucien begins the defense by painting Danny as an innocent boy who has been framed. He calls as a witness Lydia Vince, a married woman who swears on the stand that at the time of the murder, she and Danny were having sex. On cross-examination, Gaddis reveals information that makes it appear the woman is being paid off by someone, possibly the Padgitts. When the session ends for the day, Willie and Ginger are depressed by the outcome. After getting drunk, they have sex. By the next day, Gaddis has found Malcolm Vince, Lydia's estranged husband. He testifies that Lydia must be lying, since their marriage broke up over her lesbian tendencies. Lucien, knowing Lydia is a bought witness, tries to fix the damage but gives up. Danny Padgitt insists on testifying on his own behalf, against Lucien's advice. As Lucien has predicted, Danny is terrible on the stand, insisting that all the physical evidence against him is part of a conspiracy. When he realizes no one believes him, he loses his temper and threatens the jury that he will "get" every one of them. After closing arguments, the jury deliberates for a short time before arriving at a guilty verdict. They must now vote on the penalty—death or life in prison. No one is allowed to tell the jury that, at that time in Mississippi, "life" could mean less than twenty years. While waiting for the jury to decide, Willie and Ginger spend their last night together. He would like to pursue a deeper relationship, but she wants no memories of Clanton. The next day, because the jury cannot reach a decision, the judge is forced to give a life sentence. Miss Callie faints while leaving the courtroom and is rushed to the hospital, where doctors find her blood pressure is too high. She refuses to discuss the verdict. The county is shocked and dismayed by Danny's sentence. Many people blame Miss Callie and say that because she is black, she is the one who would not allow the death penalty. Then Willie reveals to the reader that within twenty-four hours, Clanton has forgotten the trial, as there is something more important to focus on.
Part 2: Chapters 21-25
The people of Clanton discover they will have to desegregate their schools in just six weeks, before they open for the new school year. Many of the white citizens panic, while most of the black citizens appear victorious. Willie is pleased because the announcement is good for his paper's circulation. The high school football season also helps with both readership and the integration problem as a young black boy leads the football team to glory. Mr. Mitlo, the local men's clothing store owner, decides to change Willie's dress style, turning him from a student into a sharply dressed professional. Malcolm Vince is murdered by an unknown sniper but the murderer is never caught. Willie learns that 16-year-old Sam Ruffin, Miss Callie's youngest child, has had an affair with a white woman named Iris Durant, and must leave town for fear of losing his life. Willie meets Sam and agrees to act as a go-between for Sam and his parents. Willie also offers to send a message to Trooper Durant, Iris's ex-husband, asking if he will allow Sam to see his parents in Clanton as long as he does not leave the black section of town. Durant does not agree, and repeats his threat to kill Sam if he comes home to Clanton. The rest of the Ruffin children and their families come home to Clanton for Christmas. Willie meets them all and is treated as a part of the family. He realizes how emotionally poor his own family and upbringing was. His mother died when he was thirteen, his father is slightly crazy, and he has no siblings. He spends Christmas Eve with his father, eating at a local Chinese restaurant, and Christmas Day with his grandmother BeeBee and some of her friends. He desperately misses the Ruffins.
On a day in late January, a sniper starts shooting up downtown Clanton. The gunman is Hank Hooten, who was an attorney on Rhoda's case as well as her lover. Hank is diagnosed as schizophrenic and sent to a mental hospital. One year after Willie buys the paper, he has enough money to pay back his grandmother but she tells him to keep his money. He decides to buy a new printing press and he updates the paper. That July campaigning starts for local elections, and in August the town elects a new sheriff. In November, the first white soldier from Ford County dies in Vietnam, and Willie stirs up a controversy with staunchly anti-war editorials. His landlord, Max Hocutt, dies, and Willie buys the man's decrepit mansion and old car from the remaining Hocutt sisters, who plan to enter a retirement home. Sam Ruffin receives his draft notice; his family convinces him to dodge the draft and flee to Canada. Willie hires a contractor to renovate the house, which turns out to be uninhabitable. The State Supreme Court affirms the conviction of Danny Padgitt.
Part 3: Chapters 32-35
This section starts five years after the end of part two. It is now 1977, and Willie's mansion is finally ready to be lived in. He has an open-house party to celebrate, with over 300 guests. He also learns that Danny Padgitt is no longer at the maximum-security prison. He has been moved to a nicer prison camp and regularly leaves the camp to go into town for lunch at the diner. No one suspects he is a prisoner. Willie breaks the story of Danny's transfer in the paper, and it is picked up by the large Mississippi and Tennessee daily papers. Within two weeks, Danny is back in the penitentiary. Willie receives threatening phone calls and notifies the FBI. He leaks his FBI communication to the daily papers so the investigation is made public. Seven years after the trial, he starts to wear a gun again, afraid of retaliation from the Padgitts. As part of his editorship, Willie has a policy of visiting services at every church in the county, and during one of these visits he sees Hank Hooten. Surprised, he tries to investigate Hooten's movements and his release from the mental hospital, but he is unsuccessful. In September 1978, Willie hears about a secret parole hearing for Danny Padgitt from a fellow newspaperman, and he attends. Contrary to state law, no one in Ford County has been notified, and the press is barred, but Willie gets around this obstacle by serving as a witness for the "other side" that is trying to keep Danny in prison. Though he is the only one there speaking against Danny's release, parole is denied by the slimmest margin. The news of Danny's near release makes Miss Callie ill, because she fears him. Still the go-between for the family, Willie gives her letters from Sam. Sam has prospered in Canada, earning a degree in economics and saving money for law school. By this time, President Jimmy Carter has pardoned those who evaded the draft, and Sam considers returning to the United States. Willie gets an offer to buy the newspaper, but he is not interested in selling.
Willie learns Danny Padgitt is to have another parole hearing. He tells Sheriff McNatt, who attends the hearing and tries to keep Danny in prison, but Danny is released. Clanton is "quietly disappointed." Evidence suggests that the Padgitts bribed the local state senator to help secure his parole, but Willie can-not prove it. Sam returns from Canada and makes a brief, secret visit to his family. He plans to go to law school. Miss Callie worries about Danny being out of jail. The people interested in buying Willie's paper make another offer. Lenny Fargarson, one of the jurors in Danny's trial, is murdered by an unknown killer, a sniper who shoots from a distance. Everyone remembers Danny's threat. The sheriff asks Willie for a list of jurors, and they discover that one has died of natural causes, but the remaining ten are still alive. All are warned, and Willie warns Miss Callie himself. She is distraught by the news and it affects her blood pressure, which has worsened in the years since the trial. The sheriff then asks Willie to speak to Lucien, Danny's attorney, about acting as a go-between for the sheriff and the Padgitts. Willie brings his lawyer friend Harry Rex for support, but Lucien is not interested in helping. Willie spends more time with Miss Callie to protect her. Eleven days after Lenny is killed, a second juror, Mo Teale, is shot by a sniper. The sheriff decides his priority is to protect the remaining jurors. They learn that one moved to Florida after the trial, so eight people remain. The sheriff uses his men, but townspeople also help protect their neighbors. Many of the jurors are hidden by their friends, who patrol the yards of the juror's homes with rifles in hand. Willie thinks Miss Callie's home has become an armed fortress. Willie tells his friend Harry Rex that he is thinking of selling the paper, and asks his advice. Harry asks if Willie would move, and Willie says no, because Clanton is home. A few days later, Miss Callie breaks her promise to keep the details of the jury's deliberations a secret. She shows Willie the list of who voted for and against the death penalty. Three jurors opposed: Fargarson, Teale, and Maxine Root. Willie, Sam, and Miss Callie contemplate the odds of coincidence, and wonder whether to warn Maxine Root. Before they can decide what to do, another juror, Earl Youry, offers the same information. The sheriff warns Maxine. Lucien asks Harry Rex to tell the sheriff that Danny Padgitt denies all involvement in the murders, and has witnesses to give him alibis for both murders. The sheriff does not believe it, and works on getting the warrants needed to arrest Danny.
Willie says he is tired of the paper and tired of Clanton, and he suspects that Clanton is tired of him. He enters into serious negotiations about selling. As a treat, Esau, Willie, and Sam bring Miss Callie to Memphis, Tennessee to visit the grave of Mrs. DeJarnette. In honor of her Italian second mother, Willie treats her to a large Italian dinner. None of them wants to leave Memphis, because it is good to get away from the tensions in Clanton. On June 25, 1979, Willie signs the papers selling the Times for one and a half million dollars. He tries to keep it quiet, but ends up telling his employees. He wants to leave town, but feels that he cannot go until the killings stop. As July 4, 1979 approaches, Willie admits his enthusiasm for the annual picnic and fireworks is low. However, the Ruffin family decides to have a family reunion, and Willie offers his five bedrooms to any Ruffin family member who wants to stay. There are now twenty-one grandchildren and a total of thirty-five Ruffins, not counting Miss Callie, Esau, and Sam. Of that number, twenty-three stay at Willie's Hocutt House. Willie observes that in nine years, he and Miss Callie have missed only seven Thursday lunches. He wants them to continue after he stops editing the paper, though he cannot find a good time to tell Miss Callie of the sale. Maxine Root receives a suspicious package. Travis, a part-time deputy, puts the package on the back porch and shoots it to see if it is a bomb. The resulting explosion badly injures Travis, Maxine, and two spectators. The sheriff immediately seeks a warrant for Danny Padgitt's arrest. Danny, with Lucien, surrenders peace-fully. The people of Clanton are relieved. The next day, much of Clanton turns out for the bail hearing, including Willie and Miss Callie and her family; the Padgitt family is noticeably absent. When Danny is put on the stand, he is shot and killed by someone in the courthouse. After an hour, they find the sniper—Hank Hooten. The shocking events cause Miss Callie to suffer a stroke, and she is taken to the hospital. Willie, by now considered a member of the Ruffin family, shares Miss Callie's last moments with them. Afterward, he goes to his office and writes his last piece for The Ford County Times: Miss Callie's obituary.
Davey Bigmouth Bass
The sports reporter/editor on the Times.
Willie's maternal grandmother is a wealthy woman who pays for his college education until his fifth year in a four-year program. BeeBee cuts off funding and tells him to get a job. She does lend him the money to buy the newspaper, however, and refuses the money when he tries to pay her back.
Spot is in his seventies. He is the editor of the Times when Willie starts working there and the son of the paper's owner. He has a plate in his head from a World War I wound and concentrates all his efforts on the paper's obituaries. He has a breakdown after being served with involuntary bankruptcy papers for the Times and dies six months later.
Mackey Don Coley
Mackey Don is Ford County's sheriff at the start of the novel. He has been the sheriff since 1943, and although he is being paid off by the Padgitt family, most people in the county do not mind as long as things are kept safe. His preferential treatment of Danny and his obvious hostility to Willie and the newspaper help turn the people of the county against him, and he loses the election the following year.
One of Clanton's Vietnam vets, Bubba introduces himself to Willie when Willie starts writing antiwar editorials. He agrees with Willie's point of view and introduces him to some other local vets who get together once a week to play poker. Willie joins their games once in a while for a diversion.
Aaron Deece is Rhoda Kassellaw's neighbor, who hears her dying words about who murdered her. He and his wife take care of the traumatized children that night. Later, he testifies against Danny Padgitt at his trial.
Nicola Rossetti DeJarnette
The reader learns about this character in Miss Callie's stories, as she dies four years before the action of the novel begins. However, she does play an important role in the book. Miss Callie calls Mrs. DeJarnette her "second mother." Nicola is the daughter of Italian immigrants, and she has married well. Miss Callie's parents are servants in the DeJarnette house when Nicola arrives as a young bride. Nicola has no children of her own, and when Callie is born, Nicola names the baby and takes her almost as a foster child. She teaches Callie Italian, exposes her to culture, and works on her diction. She also promises to pay for Callie's college education. Unfortunately, the DeJarnettes lose their money, and Mr. DeJarnette commits suicide before this can happen.
- The Last Juror was released in an unabridged audio version on CD by Random House Audio in 2004. It is narrated by Michael Beck.
Iris is an attractive woman, married to a member of the state highway patrol and the mother of two teen boys. At forty-one years old, she has an affair with sixteen-year-old Sam Ruffin. When the affair is discovered, Iris's husband beats her and throws her out, vowing to kill Sam. Iris leaves Ford County permanently.
Trooper Durant is a member of the Mississippi Highway patrol, an ex-Marine and sharpshooter, and Iris Durant's husband. After discovering his wife's infidelity, he vows to see Sam Ruffin dead and even puts a bounty on Sam's head, though he would prefer to do the killing himself. Years later, he refuses to allow Sam to come back to town.
Thought of by many in Clanton as "the cripple boy," Lenny is a member of the jury and the first juror to be killed. At the time of the trial, he uses crutches; by the time of his murder he is confined to a wheelchair. His strong faith in God impresses Willie.
Ernie Gaddis is Ford County's District Attorney at the time of the Rhoda Kassellaw murder and the attorney in charge of the prosecution during Danny Padgitt's trial. He leaves office in 1975.
The pressman for the Times, Hardy originally works for Spot Caudle, then for Willie after he takes over as owner. Willie makes sure Hardy's job will be secure under the new owners.
The seventy seven-year-old Gilma is Wilma's twin and one of Willie's landlords.
Max is owner of the Victorian mansion Hocutt House and the eldest of three siblings. He is eighty-one years old when Willie meets him in 1970. When he dies in 1972, his sisters want to move to a senior home, so they sell the house and Max's Mercedes Benz to Willie.
The seventy seven-year-old Wilma is Gilma's twin and one of Willie's landlords.
A part-time prosecutor for Ford County, Hank Hooten assists the District Attorney during Danny Padgitt's trial. At the time of the trial he's in his forties and twice divorced. According to some of the town's gossip, he was the secret lover of Rhoda Kassellaw. After Danny's life sentence, Hank has a breakdown and goes on a shooting spree in the middle of downtown Clanton. He is hospitalized as a schizophrenic but is later released. He is responsible for the murders of the jurors as well as that of Danny Padgitt, and ultimately takes his own life.
A young widow with two small children, Rhoda is an attractive flaxen-haired woman who lives about twelve miles from Clanton. She's considered a model widow because she keeps to herself; but in 1970, three years after her husband is killed in a truck accident, she frequents clubs far from home. She is brutally raped and murdered by Danny Padgitt, whom she had rejected at one of the clubs.
The Circuit Court Judge for Clanton, Judge Loopus is known for being pro-prosecution and honest. He is very concerned about the Padgitt reputation for buying law enforcement, so he works hard to ensure a fair trial. By law, he is required to sentence Danny to life imprisonment, but at the sentencing he tells Danny he wishes he could sentence him to a long and painful death.
One of the town's colorful characters, the one-legged Major is a lawyer and drinking buddy of Baggy Suggs. Most of the time, he is drunk or on his way to being drunk, but he still manages to pass valuable legal information to Willie.
A sexy redhead, Ginger is Rhoda's sister. She travels from Missouri to be the family's representative at the trial. While in Clanton she has a brief affair with Willie.
Wiley is the photographer for the Times. He advises the naive Willie on the complexities of small-town politics. He is badly beaten by the Padgitts in their effort to get the paper to stop publishing damaging articles about Danny's trial.
A Hungarian immigrant who owns Clanton's men's shop, Mr. Mitlo is responsible for changing Willie's style of dress, transforming him from raggedy student to dapper professional.
Senator Theo Morton
Morton is Clanton's secretly corrupt state senator. He is married to a woman from Clanton, which makes him popular in the town. He accepts a bribe for pushing up Danny's parole hearings, but no one can prove it.
The son of Ford County's biggest criminal family, Danny Padgitt rapes and murders Rhoda Kassellaw in a drunken rage. His anger has slowly built up after she has twice turned down his advances at a dance club. He kills her dog, breaks into her house, and hides in her closet with the intention of raping her. He does not plan to kill her but after he wakes her children he feels he must silence her. He expects that the Padgitts, with their money and corrupt influence over the legal system, will be able to keep him out of jail. At his trial he threatens the jurors, telling them, "You convict me, and I'll get every damned one of you." He is sentenced to life in prison but serves only ten years before he is released. When he returns to the family compound, jurors from his trial begin to be murdered. He is arrested on suspicion of murder but is shot and killed during his bail hearing by the real murderer, Hank Hooten.
"One of the village idiots," according to Willie, Piston is a part-time janitor and delivery-man for the Times. His moment of glory in town is finding the bomb in the paper's offices.
Maxine is one of the jurors in the Padgitt trial who would not vote for the death penalty. She is injured when a bomb is sent to her home, but she survives the murder attempt.
Known as Al to the family, he is Miss Callie's and Esau's eldest child. Born in 1931, he has a Ph.D. in sociology and is a professor at the University of Iowa.
The "last juror" of the title, Miss Callie is a black woman born in 1911. She is the wife of Esau and the mother of the eight Ruffin children. At the time Willie meets her, she's "a stout woman, thick in the shoulders and trunk." Her hair is grey and she looks old, but her smile "lit up the world with two rows of brilliant, perfect teeth," says Willie. A staunch Christian, she befriends young Willie Traynor, who comes to love her like a second mother. She feeds him incredible Southern cooking during their Thursday lunches, and in her quiet way she teaches him valuable life lessons through the stories she shares. Through her stories, we learn about her interesting girlhood. The granddaughter of slaves and a house servant herself at a young age, she is tutored by her employer, Mrs. DeJarnette, from infancy and learns Italian as her first language. Through Mrs. DeJarnette, she is exposed to knowledge and culture that is not available to most girls in her position. Because of her father's death Miss Callie leaves school when she is fifteen, but she promises herself that her children will not only finish high school but go to college as well. This is a big dream for a black girl in 1926. Three years later she marries Esau, and in 1931 they have their first child. She raises her children with the expectation that they will excel in life, and they all do. Thanks to her guidance and steely determination, seven of her children earn Ph.D.s, and the eighth is preparing for law school by the end of the novel.
Miss Callie's and Esau's sixth child, Carlota holds a Ph.D. in urban studies and teaches at UCLA.
Esau is Miss Callie's husband. A quiet man who does not appear often in the novel, he nonetheless gives Miss Callie much emotional support. He is a carpenter and a part-time preacher, and at times he has also worked as a janitor to support the family. He bought his home in 1940, which was a great accomplishment for a black man at the time. According to Willie this is still unusual even in 1970.
Miss Callie's and Esau's fifth child, Gloria holds a Ph.D. in Italian and teaches at Duke University.
Called Leo by the family, he is Miss Callie's and Esau's second child. Leo holds a Ph.D. in biology and teaches at Purdue University.
Miss Callie's and Esau's seventh child, Mario holds a Ph.D. in medieval literature and teaches at Grinnell College.
Called Max by the family, he is Miss Callie's and Esau's third child. Max holds a Ph.D. in economics and teaches at the University of Toledo.
Called Bobby by the family, he is Miss Callie's and Esau's fourth child. Bobby holds a Ph.D. in history and teaches at Marquette University.
Sam is Miss Callie and Esau's eighth and youngest child. He is the only black child between the ages of twelve and sixteen in Clanton's white schools, and these are difficult days for him. At the age of sixteen he has a brief affair with Iris Durant, and flees town in fear of losing his life. He travels from sibling to sibling, never staying in one place too long. At eighteen he tries to come back to Clanton but is told to stay away. He is then drafted, but on the advice of Willie and his siblings he flees to Canada instead. While there he earns a college degree. When amnesty is declared for those who fled the draft, he returns to the States intent on earning a law degree. He sneaks back to Clanton and spends most of Part Three of the book hiding in his parents' home. He is the Ruffin child closest to Willie. He is with his mother when she dies.
Baggy is the main reporter for the Times before Willie comes along. He is an alcoholic, lazy, and a poor writer. In 1970, Willie observes that Suggs is fifty-two but looks seventy because of his drinking. Baggy is important to Willie, however, because he knows all the town gossip and history, and he advises Willie on the newspaper business and provides Clanton insider information.
Called "Mr. John Deere" by Willie and his courthouse friends because of his tractor repair uniform, Mo is a juror in the Padgitt trial. He is the second juror murdered after Padgitt is released.
Willie is the narrator of the book. At its start he is a twenty-three-year-old college dropout working as a reporter for the Ford County Times. His mother died of anorexia when he was thirteen, and his father is a half-crazy stock and bond broker who rarely leaves the house. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Willie's considered a northerner by the folks of Clanton. He has also attended Syracuse University in New York State, so they suspect him of being a liberal; or worse, a communist. His appearance does not make things any easier—when he first comes to Clanton he has long hair, wears jeans, and drives a Triumph Spitfire. At college, he drank too much, smoked marijuana and protested the war in Vietnam. By all accounts he is a liberal, and when he buys the newspaper with a loan from his wealthy grandmother he intends to be a reformer. However, he also wants to make money. Over the course of the novel, Willie changes from former student to established businessman and becomes one of Clanton's "colorful characters" in his own right. He matures, due in part to the influence of Miss Callie in his life, and becomes a Clanton homeowner when he purchases Hocutt House. Though he gradually becomes part of Clanton he never really feels like he belongs there, and after ten years of running the newspaper he realizes he is ready to travel. He sells the paper and makes enough money to buy the financial freedom he longs for. He is a naive young man when he first buys the newspaper, but by the end of the novel he has learned much about life, politics and the dark side of human nature.
A poor woman from outside Clanton who is bought by the Padgitt family. She testifies that she is Danny's lover and was with him at the time of the murder, but it is a lie. She flees after her testimony and is never seen again.
Malcolm is Lydia's estranged husband. He destroys Lydia's testimony and is murdered shortly after the trial ends; the murder is never solved.
Harry Rex Vonner
Harry Rex is the "meanest divorce lawyer in the county," who first approaches Willie by telling him that he should carry a gun. He not only gives Willie his first gun, but also teaches him how to use it. A man with a large, fleshy face and messy hair, Harry Rex follows most of the politics and law in Ford County and is Willie's main advisor. He also becomes Willie's closest male friend. He is the only one in town who does not hate Lucien Wilbanks, so he makes a useful go-between for the sheriff.
Though Lucien is from an important family of lawyers and bankers who built up Clanton, almost everyone in town hates him. He is hired as Danny Padgitt's lawyer, and Willie describes him as "abrasive and fearless and downright mean." He has a beard, drinks heavily, and is the only white member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Ford County, which according to Willie is enough to get a man shot. By the end of the novel, he is facing disbarment but he is still as mean as he was in the beginning.
Margaret is the longtime secretary at the Times; she essentially runs the place when Spot Caudle is the editor. A shy, soft-spoken Christian woman, she is fiercely loyal to Willie through all her time with him at the paper. When he tells her he has sold the paper, she bursts into tears, and Willie realizes that in her own way she has come to love him. Willie makes sure she has a five-year contract with the new owners as part of the sales agreement.
Although Willie Traynor is from Memphis, Tennessee, the people of Mississippi see him as a northerner. Through Willie, Grisham offers a glimpse of Southern life that is both affectionate and critical. On the positive side, Willie praises Southerners for being warm, gracious, and polite. Grisham provides many examples in the book of folks protecting their neighbors, as well as Willie. For example, Harry Rex Vonner brings him a gun and teaches him how to shoot it because he knows just how dangerous the Padgitt family is. Willie also notes that people in Clanton frequently ask about his health and invite him to church. Religion comes across as an important and integral part of Southern life. Willie notices that many Southerners will rush to help other people but are distrustful of outsiders. Willie notes that "they don't really trust you unless they trusted your grandfather."
Of course, racism is the biggest flaw Willie sees in Mississippi society. Another flaw is the corrupt political system that allows families like the Padgitts to flourish and institutions like segregation to be upheld. As editor, Willie attacks corruption and tries to be a force for positive change in Ford County.
One of the book's major themes is the racism of the South. At one point, Willie observes that it is not uncommon to see signs reading, "Still Fighting the War," meaning that for many, the Civil War has not truly ended. There are desegregation battles, and the white parents' fear of their children attending school with blacks. Grisham also includes Miss Callie and Esau's story of trying to register to vote, and portrays the ways in which blacks are routinely persecuted in the community.
As editor of the paper, Willie tries to change things as much as possible. When he features the Ruffin family on his front page, he is not thinking in terms of a "colored" story, but in terms of a good human interest story. In his personal life, Willie strives for integration as well. He says he wants his housewarming party to be the first integrated party in Clanton.
When Willie Traynor moves to Clanton, Mississippi, he learns the difference between "family money" and "wealth." A number of Clanton residents are treated with the respect usually given the wealthy, even though they show no signs of being financially well-off. Spot Caudle is eccentric, as are the Hocutts, but because they have family money they are treated with respect and allowed their eccentricities. Willie realizes family money has nothing to do with wealth. In fact, most of the people with family money in Clanton are poor. However, they come from white families and are usually descended from former plantation owners. Their families own big houses with porches, and they are raised from birth with the notion that they are privileged people. As Willie says, "Acreage and trust funds helped somewhat, but Mississippi was full of insolvent blue bloods who inherited the status of family money. It could not be earned. It had to be handed down at birth."
Grisham is not the first Mississippi writer to write about family money. William Faulkner's novels and short stories, set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, are full of destitute characters who enjoy prestige because of family money.
While The Last Juror could not be characterized as a religious book, the Ruffin family is a very religious family. Miss Callie's belief permeates everything she does, and because she is such a central character in the book, religion takes on an important role. According to her children, Miss Callie's faith in God is one of the reasons they have all achieved so much. Faith in God and in His rules about hatred and judging prevent Miss Callie from becoming bitter over the hatred and racism she has had to face.
The Ruffins are not the only characters in the book who are faithful Christians. Margaret Wright and Lenny Fargarson are both described as religious people, and both gain a large measure of peace and comfort because of it.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- While most of the violence in The Last Juror is associated with the Padgitt trial, in reality, desegregation was quite violent in Mississippi. Research Medgar Evers's and the NAACP's efforts toward desegregation in Mississippi. What were some examples of the violence faced by these civil rights workers? What kinds of sacrifices did they make? How did their sacrifices benefit all residents of Mississippi? Write a paper detailing the information that you find.
- Do some research on Vietnam veterans and draft evaders on the Internet. Why did they make the choices they did? Write a short story from the point of view of a young man facing the draft in 1970. In the story, explain the decision you would make and why.
- List some of the differences you might find between the lives of black people and the lives of white people in Mississippi in the 1970s. Would this list be the same in your part of the country? If not, what are some of the reasons for the differences? If the lists are similar, why is that? Compare this list to a list of the differences between the lives of black people and white people today. Has there been a big change? Discuss your findings with your classmates.
- Watch the film version of A Time to Kill. In what ways do the themes of the film echo the themes of The Last Juror? Write a synopsis for a film version of The Last Juror. Would you make it a thriller like A Time to Kill, or would you focus more on the character-driven parts of the book? How would you handle the long time period covered in the novel?
Willie is questioned about his faith by Miss Callie. She worries about the state of his soul, as does Margaret. In addition, people in Ford County are taken aback that Willie does not attend a church. He calls himself "the most famous derelict in town." It seems that in the South during this time, one must attend church so as not to be seen as a suspicious character in the eyes of the neighbors. Willie decides to visit every church in Ford County and write about it on the Religion page of the newspaper. He notes that there are no Catholics, Episcopalians, or Mormons in the county, but that it is heavily Baptist with the Pentecostals in second place. Both of these religious communities are quite fractured, however. Willie was raised Episcopalian, so visiting churches with long, emotional services is foreign to him. Willie is a religious outsider in Clanton, and through his experiences and observations Grisham illustrates the complexity and contradiction in the community's religious life.
In literature, plot means the pattern of events in a story. Usually, a novel has a main plot and perhaps one or two sub-plots. But The Last Juror seems to have two plots that inter-twine with one another. The first plot is the Rhoda Kassellaw murder, which includes all the materials about Danny Padgitt's trial. The other plot is the Willie-Miss Callie plot, and the slow building of their friendship. Of course, Miss Callie appears in both plots since she is a juror on the Padgitt case. But often Willie seems to be telling two different stories, and readers must be careful to keep the threads of the plots straight. Sometimes the story feels a little disjointed, yet Willie is recounting the events thirty years after they happened. This nonlinear style seems appropriate because it reflects how a person's memories work.
In other places in the novel, Willie's narrative is unrelated to either the Padgitt case or Miss Callie. These episodes fill out his memory of the time, provide a fuller picture of life in Clanton, and offer insight into Willie's character.
An episodic plot is arranged as a series of separate episodes. This allows the writer to shift the place, time and viewpoint of the narrative. One thing that might confuse readers of The Last Juror is the sheer number of characters. The story covers nine years and, in that time, dozens of characters float in and out of the story. Because of the episodic nature of the writing, a character may show up only once and never reappear in the narrative. However, the writing is so vivid that even characters who appear only briefly seem to belong in the story. For example, the story of Mr. DeJarnette's suicide gives color to the novel, but moves nothing along in terms of plot. However, these minor characters help readers understand both Clanton and Ford County. In many ways, Clanton is as much a character in the novel as any other.
In the 1954 decision Brown v. the Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court struck down the idea of "separate but equal" that had been the country's guideline for racial equality since the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson. The Brown decision meant that black children must be granted access to the same schools and facilities as their white peers. However, many places in the deeply segregated South did not intend to desegregate without a fight. In some cases, the National Guard was sent in to protect black students as they entered formerly "white only" schools.
Many states fought desegregation through the courts. Mississippi avoided desegregation for a decade in this way. Not until the successful court cases of a number of black families in Mississippi, supported by the NAACP, did schools slowly start to integrate. Schools usually adopted a "freedom of choice" rule, whereby black students could voluntarily choose to go to white schools. Many white citizens fought desegregation with intimidation and violence. Black parents who sent their children to white-dominated schools could lose their jobs, leases, or credit at the bank. Sometimes there was violence, or a burning cross was erected on a family's lawn. In The Last Juror, Sam Ruffin becomes the only black student in the formerly all-white middle school. He is beaten regularly until he learns to use his fists and fight back. No other black families in Clanton are willing to put their children in the same situation.
Mississippi continued to fight desegregation until the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Alexander v. Holmes in 1969. In the case, which involved thirty Mississippi school districts, the court struck down all types of dual-school districts and ordered that desegregation must happen immediately. Many schools in Mississippi actually made the changes mid-school year, but in The Last Juror, the school district desegregates at the beginning of a new school year.
The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive events in U.S. history in the 1960s–1970s, and to understand why, one must go back much earlier. Vietnam, then called French Indochina, was a French colony for nearly a century before the Second World War. During the peace talks after that war, Vietnam was divided into two halves, communist (North Vietnam) and non-communist (South Vietnam). The French wanted to hold on to their colony, and for over seven years there was a war between the French and the Vietnamese. The United States gave financial help to the French in order to stop the spread of communism. During peace conferences in 1954, it was decided that the French would give up its claim to Indochina, and Vietnam would be temporarily divided. Ho Chi Minh, President of North Vietnam, promised to reunite the country under a communist banner. Guerrilla fighters called the Vietcong were sent into the south to disrupt the country's attempts at postwar reconstruction.
The United States aided South Vietnam because of its strong stand against communism. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy began sending U.S. troops to Vietnam to act as advisors. Things changed in 1964, when two U.S. ships were bombed in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Lyndon B. Johnson retaliated by bombing North Vietnam outposts. Congress also passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave the president broad powers for waging a war in Vietnam. After that, U.S. troops were sent to Vietnam and the United States started bombing North Vietnamese targets.
At first, many Americans supported the war, which was seen as a war against communist aggressors. However, this changed in 1968. U.S. troops had fought in Vietnam for over three years by then, with little to show for it. In January of that year, the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive. It was a massive, coordinated attack on the United States Embassy in Saigon, as well as other key cities and military bases throughout South Vietnam. It was not a military success for the North Vietnamese, who were ultimately forced back over the border, but it was a political defeat for the United States. Seeing images on television of the embassy under siege and the fierce fighting taking place, many Americans realized that the government's optimistic predictions about the war's imminent end were not realistic. Much of the American media, including respected television anchorman Walter Cronkite, spoke out against the war.
On campuses around the country, college students held protests condemning the war. In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon began withdrawing troops, but later that year the fighting escalated again. In April 1970, President Nixon announced he was expanding the fighting to Cambodia, and students erupted in protest. The protests turned deadly in May 1970, when National Guardsmen were called to Kent State University in Ohio to help control the protesters. The Guardsmen opened fire on the students, killing four and injuring nine. Two weeks later, police shot and killed two protestors at Jackson State University in Mississippi. These two incidents are still bitterly remembered.
Vietnam veterans returning from the war often found themselves the enemy in the eyes of their peers. Unlike previous veterans of foreign wars in American history, these men and women were not welcomed home with parades and glory. Many returned to the United States with drug or alcohol problems. Many soldiers in Vietnam wanted to dull both the pain of being in an unpopular war far from home and the fear of imminent death. In The Last Juror, this situation is shown through Bubba Crockett and his friends. All of them are soured by their war experiences. Large numbers of young men publicly burned their draft cards, and thousands who were drafted fled to Canada, Australia, or other countries. Sam Ruffin makes this choice in the novel, spurred on by his friends and siblings. President Jimmy Carter pardoned all draft evaders in 1978—almost 10,000 people.
Public protest against the war grew during the early 1970s. In 1973, a formal peace treaty was signed between the United States and Vietnam, and President Nixon began the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The war in Vietnam finally ended on April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell to the Vietcong. The bitterness of the war years has dulled, but the memory has not, which is evident whenever the United States faces a new war. One of the favorite cries of the anti-war movement is inevitably, "not another Vietnam."
When The Last Juror was published in January 2004, the book was released to mixed reviews. Critics expecting a "typical" Grisham legal thriller usually gave the book a poor review. But critics open to reading the book as a novel with no expectations for certain genre conventions were more positive.
Publishers Weekly gives the book a starred review, indicating the book is considered of "out-standing" quality. The anonymous reviewer says:
Grisham has spent the last few years stretching his creative muscles through a number of genres: his usual legal thrillers (The Summons, The King of Torts, etc.), a literary novel (The Painted House [sic]), a Christmas book (Skipping Christmas) and a high school football elegy (Bleachers). This experimentation seems to have imbued his writing with a new strength, giving exuberant life to this compassionate, compulsively readable story of a young man's growth from callowness to something approaching wisdom.
The review concludes with high praise indeed:
Grisham tells the sad, heroic, moving stories of the eccentric inhabitants of Clanton, a small town balanced between the pleasures and perils of the old and the new South. The novel is heartfelt, wise, suspenseful and funny, one of the best Grishams ever.
Other critics, such as Ron Berthel of the Associated Press, were not as generous in their praise, but still liked the book. He notes that the book
is … a homey tale about a small-town newspaper and its young master growing up together, and a social observation of the effects that rapidly changing times—school desegregation, the Vietnam War, illegal drug use and the demise of small businesses at the hands of national "big box" retailers—have on life in a slow-paced Southern town.
And while "suspense and thrills aren't the main focus of this novel, Grisham knows how to keep the pages turning."
Matt Grady of America's Intelligence Wire would agree. He writes that Willie's first person narrative provides "a fresh, vibrant touch to the story." Grady also appreciates "the comical supporting characters including crooked lawyers and nosy reporters." Grady writes that "these elements combined with foreboding suspense and action make The Last Juror a smooth, entertaining read."
Dierdre Donohue, writing for USA Today, argues that there are two Grishams: one who writes "jet-fueled legal thrillers" and another who writes more personal novels about things like "religious faith and its transformative power." In The Last Juror there is both. Like the reviewer from Publisher's Weekly, Donohue rates this book highly: "The novel will satisfy those with an appetite for legal thrillers and those who believe Grisham possesses more talent than those breathless page-turners sometimes reveal. It ranks among his best-written and most atmospheric novels."
Donohue does note one flaw in the novel. "Although the novel's characters are memorable, Grisham uses a heavy trowel to shape them." She remarks that characters in the book are either saints, like Miss Callie, or devils, like the Padgitts.
Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe sees the book as flawed, but showing an improvement in Grisham's skill as a novelist. He writes that Grisham is expanding as a writer, and suggests Grisham's "ambitions and skills aren't lined up yet, but the ambition is more focused, and the skill is coming along."
Some critics were disappointed in the book. Jennifer Reese at Entertainment Weekly writes that Grisham's attempt to combine a character-driven novel and a legal thriller is not altogether successful. She calls the book a "salty snack, a tasty, nonnutritious, and ultimately unsatisfying page-turner …".
New Statesman writer Mark Bearn is even more scathing in his review. He writes, "Sadly, it is a book without plot, purpose or even any pleasure for the reader, simply page after page of deep-fried Southern cliche." He goes on to attack Grisham's writing as a whole by saying that "Despite their clumsy plots, paper-thin characters and shocking grammar," Grisham's earlier books were "readable" and "surprisingly effective morality tales." However, he adds, as time goes on, Grisham has become more ambitious as a writer and "less accomplished." Bearn finds Grisham's characterizations in the novel lacking. He finds Miss Callie "absurdly angelic" and says that Grisham treats readers to "a parade of formulaic characters." He finishes his review of the novel with this analysis:
A plot, or a hard look at the racial divisions that make Mississippi the poorest and most unequal state in America, might have compensated for Grisham's lack of literary skill. Without either of these we are left with nothing.
Brantley is a writer and editor of literary reference and academic subject texts. In this essay, she examines the portrayal of racism in recent-past settings by modern writers, and how John Grisham's The Last Juror treats the subject in the twenty-first century.
In August 2005, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that people's feelings about something could be changed by manipulating their memories of it. Convinced that they had had a bad experience with strawberry ice cream as a child, adults turned away from the treat they had previously enjoyed. Persuaded that they had once loved asparagus, test subjects reported liking it more than before. The human impulse to believe that what is true today has always been true is by no means limited to such tricks of the taste buds. In 1963, George Wallace became governor of Alabama and proclaimed, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" in his inaugural speech. He raised the Confederate Battle Flag atop the state's capitol dome that year. A generation later, tradition-minded Alabamians fought the removal of the controversial symbol, arguing that it had flown there since the Civil War and to remove it would dishonor their noble Confederate ancestors. Whether through an exercise in propaganda or poetic license, American writers have also shaped their readers' present perceptions by adjusting their past attitudes. Following in the footsteps of Mark Twain, Margaret Mitchell, and Harper Lee, John Grisham reaches into the recent past and retrieves a new memory in The Last Juror.
While racism is often mentioned in the book, its presence provides more atmosphere than action. The Last Juror is not a fable with a moral about the wrongness of racism. It is a crime drama. The basic story can be summarized in a few lines: A man kills a woman. A young newspaperman sensationalizes the story to sell papers. A woman has lived a remarkable life despite hardships. She breaks ground by being selected to sit on the jury in the murder trial. The community is shocked by the outcome. Some members of the jury are murdered—but why, and by whom?
If all the players are either black or white, this cast of core characters—the murderer, the victim, the reporter, the juror, and the avenger—may have thirty different configurations and create almost as many race dramas. Or, as is the case in The Last Juror, the color of the participants' skin proves immaterial to the story's action. The juror is black, and the other core players are white. There are moments when the reader fears she will be harmed by racist whites in her community, but not only is she not harmed, she is not threatened. The issue of race in The Last Juror is a red herring, used to add suspense and keep the readers guessing. It serves as a misdirection because modern readers are primed to expect race, when mentioned, to be an issue.
Storytellers have always spun yarns about the long ago and the far away. A culture's values are both reflected in and supported by its mythology. Heroes like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and King Arthur illustrated lessons of bravery, humility, cunning, hospitality, chivalry, and piety. Each also gave future generations of his countrymen an ancestral hero with a legacy of which to be proud. As literacy and printing technology grew, readers started enjoying adventures and romances set in the present day and written in accessible language, in addition to the myths and fables of yore. By the nineteenth century, masters like Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo were making statements about contemporary politics in Russia and France with stories set during major events in each country's recent past. Writing just after the American Civil War about events in the years just prior, Mark Twain (1835–1910) used the recent-past technique and a child's point of view to evoke compassion for African Americans.
Immediately after the Civil War, the U.S. government suspended the rights of the rebel states in a period known as Reconstruction. It passed laws to establish civil rights for newly freed slaves, but resistance to such forced progress gave rise to organized racism and violence as defeated white southerners sought to reclaim a sense of power. When Reconstruction ended in 1877, the stage was set for the Jim Crow era, a period of legalized racial segregation designed to systematically oppress African Americans. Published in 1885 and set "Forty to Fifty Years Ago," Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shows the hero's struggle with his conscience while trying to do the right thing. After faking his death and leaving home, Huck takes up with a runaway slave named Jim, whose friendship and company are the foundation for the novel's adventures. Although he loves his friend, Huck feels that he should turn in the fugitive slave. He prays for the resolve to turn Jim in but cannot bring himself to do the "right" thing:
I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go write to that nigger's owner and tell where he was; but deep down I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie—I found that out…. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right then, I'll go to hell[.]"
Huck accepts his inability to betray Jim as a flaw in his own sinful nature rather than a flaw of the society that expects him to regard another human as less than himself. That he does the morally right thing, even when contrary to the legally right thing, reveals something admirable about Huck. Through the brave decision of a thoroughly likeable and fully American character, Twain gives his readers a hero they can identify with, respect, and honor as they, too, do the moral thing. Huck recognizes Jim's humanity long before the lawmakers in Washington try to legislate that recognition. Following his example, Twain's readers can also be compassionate without feeling like some federal law has told them how to feel.
Grisham uses a different tactic to let his readers feel compassion. In one scene in The Last Juror, he describes the contrasting reactions to public school desegregation from both communities it is about to affect:
The white parents were angry and frightened and I saw several women crying. The fateful day had finally arrived. At the black school there was an air of victory. The parents were concerned, but they were also elated that their children would finally be enrolled in the better schools.
By representing the black community's point of view, Grisham underscores the righteousness of the wronged party without preaching or even pointing out which side that is. His readers get to feel good about themselves for knowing that they, too, are on the side of right.
Written during the Jim Crow era, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936) gave readers license to remember the Civil War in a new way. Mitchell (1900–1949) experienced the beginning of the breakdown of the Jim Crow South as an adult in Atlanta. During the Red Summer of 1919, northern and southern U.S. cities alike witnessed more than two dozen race riots. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld black defendants' rights to fairness before the law with landmark cases in the 1920s and 1930s in which African Americans were charged with violence against whites. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan peaked in the 1920s, and the poverty and insecurity of the Great Depression of the 1930s fostered animosity toward minorities as people competed for scarce jobs and resources.
Gone With the Wind gave readers a picture of benign slavery they could embrace, as well as a dashing, romantic, racist hero to admire. Mitchell's Rhett Butler is a charming rogue who ignores conventions and lives for his own selfish pleasure. In a line meant to reveal something good about Rhett's character, the narrator notes, "Even Rhett, conscienceless scamp that he was, had killed a negro for being 'uppity to a lady.'" The reader understands that being a murderer is preferable to letting a white lady endure a perceived affront. Later, Scarlett, the story's protagonist, tries to defend the use of white convict labor by comparing it to slavery: "Ah, but that was different. Slaves were neither miserable nor unfortunate. The negroes were far better off under slavery than they were now under freedom, and if she didn't believe it, just look about her!" Regardless of whether Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece served to defend its author's heritage and justify her beliefs, it did allow its readers to hold their chins up and look down their noses at the idea that there was anything wrong with being a racist.
Grisham turns this approach on its head. While Rhett is a likeable racist, Lucien Wilbanks, the defense attorney in The Last Juror, is an unsympathetic progressive. "He was the only white member of the NAACP in Ford County, which alone was enough to get you shot there. He didn't care." Wilbanks is mean, unpopular, and one of the novel's bad guys, but he is also bravely on the right side of the race question.
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was written in the thick of the civil rights movement, between the 1954 decision that outlawed segregation in public schools and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Set in the 1930s in Jim Crow Alabama, the novel was inspired by the case of the Scottsboro boys, nine black teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. All but the youngest one were sentenced to death for the crime, but all were eventually released through appeals, pardons, or parole. In two separate decisions related to the case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the defendants' right to due process and fair trials.
Atticus Finch, the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a white lawyer defending an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. He does not win, nor does he expect to, but he behaves bravely and morally in the face of societal pressure to do otherwise.
Finch is a hero like Huck Finn: one that readers can look up to as a model to emulate in a confusing time of change. The idea that all citizens deserved life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was one that some white Americans officially resisted into the 1970s. The message of To Kill a Mockingbird could be that white people are no better and no worse than black people, black people are no less deserving of civil rights than white people, and it is up to white people to look out for black people. The novel lumps African Americans in with simpletons, bugs, and birds—all of which deserve compassion and protection from white people. Early in the book, a neighbor explains to Atticus's son why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird: "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us." Later, the boy prevents his sister from killing a harmless roly-poly bug with the argument "they don't bother you." The novel ends with the girl agreeing with her father that they should protect their mysterious, emotionally troubled neighbor, because to do otherwise would be "like shootin' a mockingbird."
Atticus Finch shows the readers how to act righteously while assuring them that they can remain superior. He is painted as a hero to the dignified and stoic black community. He believes they are equal but does not seem to mind keeping them separate. Rather than grief and outrage when an innocent man is sent to prison, the black members of the community stand as a gesture of respect when the white lawyer passes by. This exchange between Finch and his African American housekeeper about the gifts of food the black townspeople leave to show their gratitude underscores the fact that heroic behavior in one generation may not only be inadequate but actually offensive to the next:
Calpurnia said, "This was all 'round the back steps when I got here this morning. They—they 'preciate what you did, Mr. Finch. They—they aren't oversteppin' themselves, are they?"
Atticus's eyes filled with tears. He did not speak for a moment. "Tell them I'm very grateful," he said. "Tell them—tell them they must never do this again. Times are too hard."
Even if the exchange does not suggest that there are circumstances in which the gift-givers might step out of place, it does say that white people do not owe black people the most basic observance of good manners—to say "thank you" to people who give them gifts and pay them compliments. If Lee was able to convince readers in the 1960s to be more like Atticus Finch, she contributed to progress—not triumph. If Finch had made African American friends with whom he socialized at their homes, at his home, and in public, like the white protagonist of The Last Juror, the bar would have been higher.
The Last Juror (2004) offers a new reason to look to the recent past: to reassure readers that they do not need to talk about race at every opportunity in order to prove they are intelligent, evolved, progressive beings. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Toni Morrison claims that "the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture." Grisham by no means ignores it. He portrays overt racism in 1970s Mississippi as a fact of the setting, like the hot summers or the native drawl, but does not make any specific judgment condemning it. However, The Last Juror is filled with portrayals of racism and its effects. Grisham does not downplay or ignore racism; he simply opts not to make it the center of his tale. He populates his fictional Clanton, Mississippi, with rich, full personalities and makes sure that neither the town's black citizens nor its white citizens have a monopoly on silliness or dignity, evil or virtue. Through the voice of narrator Willie Traynor, Grisham comes across as clearly anti-racist, but he does not belabor the point. He trusts his twenty-first-century audience to share his feeling and gets on with the story.
Grisham does not use The Last Juror to influence his readers' opinions about race. He paints neither a prettier nor uglier picture of the past, and he does not ask his readers to feel better or worse about themselves or their history. He does not suggest that the fight against racism is won, or even close to over. His debut novel, A Time to Kill (1989), set in present-day Clanton, addresses the issue head on. With The Last Juror, he gives a multifaceted portrayal of life in the small-town South. The Twains, Mitchells, and Lees that came before him made sure he does not have to educate his readers about racism; they already know. Thanks to the modern reader's sophistication, Grisham is able to reach a new level of complexity and realism in his depiction of the recent past.
In his opinion on the 1972 decision that deemed all American death penalty statutes illegal, Thurgood Marshall, the country's first black Supreme Court justice, wrote, "In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute." In 2004 with the inhabitants of his fictional Clanton, Grisham came closer to paying himself this tribute than most other American writers could imagine.
Source: Margaret Brantley, Critical Essay on The Last Juror, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following interview with Jordan, Grisham discusses how his many books, as well as the filmed adaptations of those books, compare to each other.
John Grisham's office, a stunning loft space overlooking downtown Charlottesville, Va., is a long, lean expanse of wood floors studded with curvy red and plum sofas and an imposing conference table. Despite the wood and glass and steel, it's a warm space, decorated with both the expected (movie posters, early reviews) and the unexpected (one of his old Mississippi law firm business cards, encased in a small frame). Grisham, 49, strides in five minutes late, apologetic. He's driven from his farm, a 204-acre spread south of the city that he shares with wife Renee and daughter Shea (son Ty is away at college). Nursing an Italian coffee, he ponders a list of his 17 best-sellers and 9 movies. "By the time I'm finished with one book I'm always thinking about the next one," he says, laughing, "so I can't remember a lot of detail. But I'll wing it."
He doesn't have to wing it, of course. Here's a short list of his favorites—and a few not-so-favorites:
Grisham was a small-town lawyer and state legislator in Mississippi when he picked up a pen and pad and started A Time to Kill (1989). "I didn't know what I was doing when I wrote that book. It's the only book out of 17 that I wrote without a deadline and without the knowledge that it was going to get published, so I really took my time with it. Still, I go back and look at it occasionally and see a lot of rookie mistakes … Too many long sentences and too much flowery prose.
Now, 20 years later, I'm really tired of the Ku Klux Klan stuff. When you write about the South it's got to be about race, and I wish I hadn't devoted so much of the book to the Klan because they don't deserve it. That's one thing I'd change."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Grisham's A Time to Kill (1988) was his first book, and it is also set in Clanton, Mississippi in the fictional Ford County, so it is an interesting way of seeing some characters' first appearances in print. It also has similar themes but is more of a thriller.
- The Summons (2002) is the second book Grisham set in Clanton. Not really a thriller, it has been called a morality play by some reviewers—a story that tells readers how they should behave by showing them characters who do the absolute wrong thing.
- R. M. Leich's Not My Father's War (2004), a novel written by a Vietnam veteran, is the story of a wealthy young man from Nashville, Tennessee who tries to keep up the family tradition of service to country and patriotism, but who learns that Vietnam is unlike any other American war.
- George C. Herring's America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975, 3rd edition (2001) is the textbook most highly recommended for understanding the Vietnam War. The last chapter, "The Post-War and the Legacy of Vietnam," has been revised to reflect the dramatic changes of the past decade, and it analyzes the influence that Vietnam continues to have on Americans.
After spending three years laboring over A Time to Kill—and not having much to show for it—Grisham admits that The Firm (1991) was "a naked stab at commercial fiction": "If it hadn't worked the second time, I probably would've stopped for a while. I like [The Firm] a lot because I've always liked the character of Mitch McDeere, and the hook, and the ending—in spite of what Hollywood did to it." (Grisham ended with the main couple stealing Mob money and going on a permanent Caribbean vacation, while director Sydney Pollack, claiming he was sick of "yuppie endings," sent Tom Cruise and Jeanne Tripplehorn back to their Boston roots, poorer but wiser.) The movie: "I had nothing to do with it. I went to the set twice. Stephen King is a buddy, and he told me a long time ago, 'They're just movies. They cannot change a word of what you've written. It's somebody else's interpretation. Take the money and run.'… I thought [Cruise] did a good job. He played the innocent young associate very well."
Hoping to capitalize on The Firm's success, Grisham churned out The Pelican Brief (1992) in two months flat: "You know the movie Three Days of the Condor, the CIA thriller [directed by Pollack] with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway? The book was a deliberate effort to outspace Condor, to have all this stuff going on, so the reader could not turn the pages fast enough. But I think it shows some damage because it was written so fast." The movie: "I met Alan Pakula before he bought the film rights, and he wanted my input. I read the screenplay, and it followed the book … That's all you can ask for. The movie was very popular. I though Julia [Roberts] was a good choice … I had a problem with Denzel [Washington], not as actor, but in the book he's a white guy … I didn't write the guy as a black guy in the book. Some of my characters are white and some are black. If you're going to make a dramatic change, give me a good reason. And there really was no good reason. And I think it was kind of awkward; in the book there was more of a romance toward the end between the two. In the movie it was almost like they couldn't because one was black and one was white."
In its first year out, The Client (1993) sold 3 million copies; it even overtook the behemoth The Bridges of Madison County on the best-seller charts for a few weeks. "The Client was, by the benefit of 10 years' hindsight, by far the weakest book … because of the kid hiring the lawyer, the kid knowing where the body's buried … There's a hundred pages of fluff in that book." The movie: "The Client may be my least favorite book, but it's a really popular movie. The Pelican Brief and Client were much closer to the books than The Firm … I thought Susan Sarandon was wonderful."
The Chamber (1994), about a death-penalty case, was a departure for Grisham, the first in which he grappled with social issues: "It was probably the most difficult book I had to write. Growing up in a strict Southern Baptist house-hold you think capital punishment's wonderful—line 'em up, shoot 'em, hang 'em. And the book flipped me. I wasn't expecting that. I spent time on death row, and it had a profound impact on me. It was difficult to write—I just couldn't get the guy to the gas chamber. And so it became a very long book. The only book I've missed the deadline on. But it's a book I like a lot. A book I'm proud of." The movie: "A disaster. A train wreck from the beginning. It could not have been handled worse by those involved, including me. I made a fundamental error when I sold the film rights before I finished writing the book. It was a dreadful movie. Gene Hackman was the only good thing in it."
Next he tackled the insurance industry in The Rainmaker (1995): "I got to unload on insurance companies, which is a lot of fun. I sued 'em for 10 years when I was a lawyer … Rainmaker was … the first time I used first-person narration, and I realized I really, really liked it … The challenge with Rainmaker, also with The Runaway Jury , is that courtroom stuff of a civil nature is unbelievably dull. And so you weigh the balance of pace with being legally accurate. I hate this television stuff with courtroom scenes that would just make any lawyer want to vomit. I don't want to do that." The movie: "To me it's the best adaptation of any of 'em. [Francis Ford] Coppola really wanted my involvement, for whatever it's worth. And I love the movie. It's so well done. And it came out a few weeks before Titanic and got swamped."
There's no moralizing in The Partner (1997), just good writing about a greedy lawyer on the lam: "It's one of my favorite stories, one of the trickiest ones, flashing back and then forward, nabbing the lawyer and then watching him wiggle out of it. There are times when my wife says, 'Would you just stop preaching and tell a story?' And I listen to that."
Grisham tried a new tack In The Brethren (2000)—humor. It's the tale of three jailed judges who run a blackmailing scam from their cells: "I thought [Brethren] was hilarious! It was supposed to be hilarious! It's based on a real story—though obviously I was careful to fictionalize it—at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Brethren was a fun story, fun to write, but one with no redeeming social value whatsoever."
Grisham got rave reviews for A Painted House (2001), his first nonlegal thriller: "Well, probably my best book. The best writing. Probably the best story and the best characters. It's a sweet childhood memoir, even though it was published as fiction. The first seven years of my life—I was that kid, I lived on that farm, with my grandparents, playing baseball with Mexicans. Once I got all the setting and characters in place, I just sort of fictionalized everything …"
In his new book, The Last Juror—not strictly a legal thriller—Grisham takes readers back to Ford County, the fictional Mississippi county that was also the setting of A Time to Kill. "I wrote a hundred pages of it in the fall of 1989. I was going to write a Ford County book and a legal thriller, back and forth, and write two kinds of books, so I had the story all mapped out, and then The Firm went crazy, so The Last Juror got shoved to the back burner. But I've learned a lot over the years. After 15 years, I have greater expectations for my books."
Source: Tina Jordan, "Grisham V Grisham: John Grisham, undisputed champ of the legal thriller, issues a summary judgment on THE LAST JUROR, his latest novel, along with verdicts on some of his previous best-sellers," in Entertainment Weekly, No. 751, February 13, 2004, p. 41.
In the following review, Dyer argues that The Last Juror is Grisham's most literary novel to date, and is more than just a legal thriller.
[Text Not Available]
[Text Not Available]
Source: Richard Dyer, "Book Review The Last Juror By John Grisham," in Boston Globe, February 2, 2004, p. E1.
Bearden, Michelle, "An Interview with John Grisham," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 8, February 22, 1993, pp. 70-71.
Bearn, Mark, "Southern Comfort," in New Statesman, Vol. 133, February 23, 2004, pp. 54-56.
Berthel, Ron, "'Legal Thriller' Only One Way to Describe Grisham's New Novel," for The Associated Press, February 3, 2004, BC cycle.
Blitzer, Charles, "From the Center," in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 18, Issue 3, Summer 94, p. 160.
Donohue, Dierdre, "Last Juror is a Tale of 2 Grishams," in USA Today, January 27, 2004,Final Edition, Life Section, p. 1D.
Dyer, Richard, "Book Review, The Last Juror," in Boston Globe, February 2, 2004, Third Edition, Living Section, p. E1.
Grady, Matt, "Perspective of The Last Juror Adds to Grisham's Writing," in America's Intelligence Wire, March 11, 2004.
Grisham, John, The Last Juror, Random House, 2004.
Hunter, Marjorie, "A Re-Entry Plan," in New York Times, September 17, 1974, p. 1.
John Grisham Online, www.randomhouse.com/features/grisham/
"The Last Juror Book Review," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 251, February 2, 2004, p. 59.
Mohr, Charles, "10,000 Affected Now," in New York Times, January 22, 1977, p. 47.
Oberdorfer, Don, "Tet: Who Won?," in Smithsonian, Vol. 35, Issue 8, November 2004, pp. 117-22.
Reese, Jennifer, Losing Appeal? Legal Pyrotechnics and Melodrama Awkwardly Mix in John Grisham's "The Last Juror," in Entertainment Weekly, February 13, 2004. p. 74.
"School Desegregation in Mississippi," University of Southern Mississippi's Civil Rights Documentation Project, www.usm.edu/crdp/html/cd/desegregation.htm
Appy, Christian G, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, Viking Books, 2003.
This book is designed to be an oral history, giving voice to people from all sides of the Vietnam War—officials from both the United States and Vietnam, as well as words from widows of soldiers, civilians who helped in the war effort as well as war protestors.
Fireside, Harvey and Sarah Betsey Fuller, Brown v. Board of Education: Equal Schooling for All, Landmark Supreme Court Cases Series, Enslow Publishers, 1994.
An objective and well-written book, aimed at giving high school students a solid understanding of this groundbreaking case. To help readers understand, it includes photos, quotations from both sides of the battle and explanations of the judges' opinions.
Galt, Margot Fortunato, Stop This War!: American Protest of the Conflict in Vietnam, Lerner Publishing, 2000.
Galt interviewed many former conscientious objectors who give their viewpoint about the Vietnam war. She also gives information about protest groups, the war policies of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and the Kent State killings.
Maraniss, David, They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967, Simon & Schuster, 2003.
This book gives a good overview of the peace movement in America, focusing on Wisconsin and the battle situation in Vietnam.
Walter, Mildred Pitts, Mississippi Challenge, Simon & Shuster Children's Publishing, 1992.
Walter writes an objective and thorough non-fiction book in which she outlines the history of blacks in Mississippi from before the Civil War through the mid-1960s. She paints a stark picture, especially of how whites in Mississippi tried to prevent blacks from voting. The book includes good notes and a bibliography.