Wednesday, February 12, 2014

#BookReview: Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Synopsis: Seth Hubbard is a wealthy man dying of lung cancer. He trusts no one. Before he hangs himself from a sycamore tree, Hubbard leaves a new, handwritten, will. It is an act that drags his adult children, his black maid, and Jake into a conflict as riveting and dramatic as the murder trial that made Brigance one of Ford County's most notorious citizens, just three years earlier.

The second will raises far more questions than it answers. Why would Hubbard leave nearly all of his fortune to his maid? Had chemotherapy and painkillers affected his ability to think clearly? And what does it all have to do with a piece of land once known as Sycamore Row?

Review: As a son of the South, John Grisham understands its ways and its people.  While some like to pretend that systemic racism and segregation ended with the Civil Rights movement, Grisham is here to remind us that neither did.  Set in 1987, the events in Sycamore Row read like something that could have easily happened in 1957.

When a wealthy white man hangs himself from a sycamore tree and leaves almost all of his money to his black maid, and not his estranged white, adult children, all hell breaks out.  Jake Brigance, who you'll remember from Grisham's A Time to Kill, is named attorney for Hubbard's estate.  The white people of the town have no problem believing that Lettie, the maid, must have unduly influenced Seth to leave her so much, yet Lettie is just as confused as to why he's named her in his will.

Though not a common thread in all of his books, when Grisham does approach racial relations, he doesn't sugarcoat anything, and in Sycamore Row, race plays a part in everything.  I had to keep reminding myself that things that happened in this book happened in my life time.  Yes, I know it's fiction, but most fiction is based in some truth.  I was struck by a maid in Mississippi being begrudged by a white family for making $ 5 an hour and being fired as soon as the funeral was over so they wouldn't have to continue to pay what they felt was an overinflated wage. I couldn't decide if the family was upset because they really thought someone was getting rich off of $ 5 an hour or if it was because the person getting the $ 5 was a black woman.  Surely they couldn't believe that small amount of money was going to lift anyone out of poverty.

It was nice to see Jake Brigance again, and even Lucien Wilbanks reappears, this time a bit stronger and healthier than he was in A Time to Kill.  My favorite character, Harry Rex, is back too, serving as an advisor, mentor and friend to the young attorney.  The whole time I was reading Sycamore, I kept imagining the characters as they appeared in the movie version of A Time to Kill.  I'd definitely love to see a film version of this if they were able to assemble the old cast, but only if Matthew McConaughey can get back to his Jack Brigance level of fine.  Current Matthew is

Anyway, fans of Grisham will love this book.  I didn't think it was five star worthy, but it's a good read nonetheless.

Published: October 2013

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