Top critical review
Southern Gothic tragedy
November 11, 2018
A Southern Gothic tragedy about the decline and disgrace of a prominent and respected family who own a valuable plantation in rural Mississippi.
The time is the 1940s and the racial divide affects the social standing and legal justice for the Blacks. There are harsher penalties for blacks than for white citizens charged with crimes. The vast number of executions in the district have been carried out on blacks and the death penalty of a wealthy white man has been unknown. Judges and all white juries are the rule, and the wealth to afford the best defense lawyers is a deciding factor. We get a chilling description of botched hangings and electrocutions.
Pete Banning was a highly respected family man, a successful farmer, and war hero. One day he enters the Methodist church which his family attended, and shoots their beloved and popular minister. The mystery and suspense lie in his motive for such a bizarre crime. He refuses to explain his reason to anyone: not his family, not to the judge, jury, his lawyer or the governor. The first section of the book deals with legal maneuvering and the trial.
The second part of the book focuses on Pete’s horrific experiences in the Pacific during WW2. I found this to be the strongest part of the book. Grisham writes vividly showing superb ability to describe the indescribable tortures, illnesses, and death. We follow Pete during the Bataan Death March, the deprivation and suffering in a Japanese POW camp, in one of the overcrowded, filthy ships carrying prisoners to Japan for slave labor and finally as a guerrilla fighter in the Philippine jungle. Pete was classified missing and believed dead for 3 years. He returns home to an overjoyed wife, sister,and two children after being hospitalized for war wounds and the after effects of dysentery and malaria. The happiness doesn’t last long. He commits his wife to a mental institution and the grown children are forbidden to visit. Then he murders the minister.
The third section of the book shows Pete’s children, now attending college, tied up in a wrongful death suit filed on behalf of the minister’s widow. As the family fortune declines, there are several more tragedies. Surely things will be turned around to provide a happier ending. Suspense which sustained the story is finally resolved when the motive for the murder is finally revealed.
I felt the book was longer than necessary. All the legal appeals were informative but caused the plot to move at a snail’s pace. The WW2 flashbacks were the most powerful part of the story for me and which could have been a separate novel. The structure bothered me at first, starting out at the family in their present time (1940s), then flashbacks to WW2 events, and finally a continuation of the character's story. Overall I concluded this format worked well. Definitely not a happy, relaxing read. but it was compelling.