As I was reading John Grisham”s latest novel, “A Painted House,” a friend of mine asked me what the book was about.
I had just started it, so I vaguely told him it was about a young boy growing up on a southern farm during the 1950s.
My friend then asked the obvious question: “Does the boy grow up to be a struggling lawyer fighting against an evil corporation?”
Thankfully, the answer is “no.”
Narrator Luke Chandler spins the story much like Huckleberry Finn. The seven-year-old lives on his family”s cotton farm in Arkansas during an eventful 1952.
Caught between childish innocence and the troubles of adolescence, Luke must pick his share of cotton to maintain the struggling farm, keep some very high-stakes secrets and practice catching fly balls so he can eventually become a St. Louis Cardinal.
September means picking season, and the Chandlers Luke, his parents and his grandparents recruit Mexican laborers and “hill people” from the Ozarks to assist in the picking.
A bad crop could ruin the Chandlers, but a good crop could provide them with enough money to pay outstanding loans on the farm.
Grisham”s best trick may be in the way he addresses racial and class tensions during that period of time. For example, Luke”s grandmother is one rare individual who actually treats the Mexican farmhands with respect.
The sharecropping hill people, the Spruills, are poorer than most of the land renters, but even they still have prejudices against the Chandlers. “Why don”t you sodbusters paint your houses?” big Hank asks Luke.
Paint isn”t the only status symbol in the book.
Television, telephones and cars also serve as reminders that the “50s are ushering in a new era for America, even in the most rural portions of the South.
Hank”s mother wants to move north and ensure Luke”s escape from the frustrating life of a farmer. As long as Luke gets to join Stan Musial and his Cardinals, he”ll be content.
But concerns of all sorts pose a threat to Luke”s happy dreams. Hank Spruill has the unfortunate habit of killing people. If arrested, all of the Spruills would leave and the cotton can”t be picked.
The Chandlers” neighbors also have issues. Among the worst of them, Luke”s best friend and 19-year-old uncle Ricky is fighting in Korea, with letters few and far between.
This isn”t to say Luke has it all bad. He still gets to go to the movies every weekend.
And Hank”s sister 17-year-old Tally, takes a shine to him and lets him watch her bathe. But with the Cardinals falling behind in the National League pennant chase, hushed whispers of money troubles, and secrets swirling, Hank”s life is turbulent.
It”s hard not to love a boy who makes remarks such as “He [Pappy, Hank”s grandfather] didn”t like the Jordans because they were Methodists and Cubs fans.”
Another gem: ” Satan was waiting with the likes of Hitler and Judas Iscariot and General Grant,” reminds this Yankee reader where and when this story is set.
As a Baptist, Luke makes very incisive yet innocent remarks about his church and the rival Methodists. He also reveals his crush on Tally through his innocence.
Trying to keep pace with all of the scandals and action, while the Chandlers try and beat both nature and the river to secure their crop, is a rewarding challenge.
Grisham should be applauded not just for trying a new style, but also for succeeding where many would fall flat.
Making a town come to life during a church service or a town baseball game, Grisham, through Luke, relates a charming story.