Wednesday, February 17, 2010

#BookReview: Guest Post: A Gathering of Old Men - Ernest Gaines

Today's guest blogger is Rochelle Spencer.

Ernest Gaines is one of those writers you read and forget how good he is. Gaines writes stories the way your grandfather cooks greens; he blends a mix of dialogue, setting, and pacing so well that no one element of his storytelling overwhelms another, and the lack of pyrotechnics makes you almost forget how much careful craftmanship flows through his writing.

So much attention has been paid to A Lesson Before Dying, the 1993 Oprah book club pick and Pulitzer Prize nominee that was later made into a movie, that it’s interesting--and informative--to revisit a novel Gaines wrote 10 years earlier, A Gathering of Old Men.

As with A Lesson Before Dying, readers see Gaines’ familiar themes--the idea of manhood and what this means for black men in particular--told spectacularly well. A Gathering of Old Men takes place in Louisiana in the 1970s, a time when the south was still segregated and scarred by violence. In the novel, eighteen old black men--and one white woman--gather at a house after another black man is suspected of murdering a white man. These black men know there will be a lynching--after all, someone has to pay for the white man’s life--yet their decision to support the accused and stand against the racial insults they’ve endured their entire lives is a final act of bravery.

A Gathering of Old Men has a couple of flaws (a few stories are a bit repetitive), but Gaines’ clear, scrubbed prose breaks your heart. When Gaines describes one of the elderly black men, you feel you’ve known him all his life: “He had on that old Dodgers baseball cap that he had since the Dodgers was in Brooklyn. It had faded to a light light blue, and it was too big for his head. But old Chimley was a Dodgers’ fan down to his heart. ‘I’m scared, but I’m here,’ he said.”

Gaines is one writer who doesn’t always get the attention he deserves. But to reread Gaines is to truly know people--understand them and empathize with them in a way you never did before.

213 pp
Published 1983

Rochelle Spencer is an aspiring novelist whose work appears in Poets and Writers, the African American Review, Black Issues Book Review, the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Hip Hop Literature, and many other publications. She blogs at, and you can reach her at
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