[March 25, 2001] John Grisham’s latest novel, a nostalgic coming of age tale, is an inviting story about rural life in Arkansas. Like his legal thrillers, A Painted House is filled with interesting characters in a particularly Southern setting ensnared by misdeeds that cry out for justice, though Grisham’s peculiar sense of justice is often unsatisfying.
As seven-year-old Lucas Chandler introduces life on his family’s cotton farm in 1952, it’s clear that the simple life of biscuits, chores and the cotton gin will give way to worldly disruption. The drama unfolds at a slow, leisurely pace with the boy, known as Luke, as the story’s narrator.
Luke, who lives with his mother, father and grandparents in an unpainted house, explains that this year’s promising cotton crop – in perpetual danger from the rains – must rely on the hard work of hired hands. In Black Oak, Arkansas, that means an unlikely alliance of Chandlers, Mexicans and those folks who descend from the Ozark Mountains called the Hill People.
The Mexicans, who are dirty, poor and hardworking, present no immediate threat to Luke, who yearns to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. But the Spruills from the Ozarks get off to an ominous start when they set up camp on the Chandlers’ front lawn, which serves as Luke’s private playground.
That first night, after his mother and grandmother shell peas and butter beans, as the family frets over the prospect of a good crop, Luke “sat on the steps, holding my Rawlings glove, squeezing my baseball inside it, watching the shadows of the Spruills in the distance and wondering how anyone could be so thoughtless as to build a fire on home plate.”
Luke soon falls for shapely 17-year-old Tally Spruill, who makes eyes at one of the Mexicans, who clashes with her brother, Hank, a brute who knows he’s brutal. There are many long, hot days of cotton-picking, a carnival, a rising river and, as the story reaches its climax, blood is spilled, fortunes are lost, a baby is born, and Luke’s keeping more secrets than the town busybody. The plot moves slowly but steadily.
A Painted House is not a legal thriller, as Grisham reminds his fans in an introductory note. The popular author applies his sense of small town law and order to create a wistful tale of youth and treachery amidst life on a farm in the Fifties.
For some readers, those days gone by are best forgotten. Luke’s grandfather Pappy is prone to such homespun wisdom as the proclamation that “women do stupid things” and the Chandlers’ notion of loyalty to family at all costs strikes the reader as more cruel than charming. It is also implausible that Luke would – or should – bear such heavy burdens. But it’s unlikely that fans will be disappointed; John Grisham is a skillful writer and he has written an evocative, if undemanding, story of the South.
Originally published as the lead fiction review in the March 25, 2001, edition of the Dallas Morning News and other newspapers upon publication.