by Amy Coffin
Don’t say you weren’t warned. A Painted House contains no lawyers, no judges, not even a single courtroom battle. John Grisham himself even admitted the fact in an open letter published on the Doubleday website. Fans of the best-selling author have grown accustomed to his legal nail biters, so it’s no surprise that everyone has anxiously awaited the arrival of this novel.
What is surprising, however, is the subject matter. As stated, this is not a legal thriller. Reading the back of the book might make one ask, “A little boy on a farm? How can that be interesting? What is Grisham thinking?”
This is Luke Chandler’s story. Though he doesn’t know it, he’s about to come of age in a single harvest season. At seven years old, he’s been farming since he could walk, talk and pick cotton with his parents and grandparents.
A Painted House opens with the 1952 autumn harvest. There are eighty acres to be picked and it is customary in rural Black Oak, Arkansas to hire Mexicans and “hill people” from the Ozarks to assist in the picking.
Things don’t seem right this time around, though. The Mexicans don’t seem to be getting along with one of the hill people. The whole Chandler family is on edge because Luke’s Uncle Ricky is in combat in the Korean War. The cotton has to get picked, though, because the money is needed to pay the debts that have accumulated since the last harvest.
Grisham uses his childhood to paint a vivid picture of rural Arkansas in 1952. Though this is by no means an autobiography, it is clear that Luke Chandler and young John Grisham both shared a passion for baseball and dreaming of what world exists beyond this small Southern town.
That’s where the similarity ends, however. During the course of the harvest, Luke witnesses love, hate, and several forms of injustice. He sees events no man or woman, never mind a child, should ever see including brutal violence, racial and class division, and a genuine reality check in regards to the bird and the bees.
Grisham is to be commended for his amazing storytelling ability. It’s hard to believe that the life of a 7 year-old could be compelling, but it is so in this book. Luke may be wiser than his years, but he is still a child. He learns lots of secrets that nobody his age should know. Fortunately, Grisham was wise enough to let his young character act and react like a child instead of like some mini-adult in a Lifetime made-for-TV movie.
Also interesting was the portrayal of a Baptist family in a rural Southern town. The time period should be noted, because the town had not yet been influenced by television. The radio brought the news and the townsfolk brought the gossip. Unfortunately, what Luke knows could put his family right smack in the middle of the talk, and the Chandlers would create the biggest headlines in decades of Black Oak’s existence.
My one criticism of A Painted House beings and ends with the very last page. Without discussing the conclusion, I’ll just say that I wish there had been one more page. Perhaps a little “twenty years later” update or something like that would have satisfied my need to have closure with the Chandlers’ story.
I’d also note that many readers have mentioned their dislike for the ending in Grisham’s previous release, The Brethren, which concludes in a very open way with no finality for the characters or the story. I was relieved to see that A Painted House did actually have an ending. However, I liked Luke so much I wanted to know if he ever did get to play for the Cardinals as he wanted, or have a career outside of farming as his mother wanted.
What Grisham has done here is not new, but it is a trend among today’s writers. I recently read Wish You Well by David Baldacci, an author also known for his best-selling thrillers. However, the book I mentioned involves two young children learning to love, and is based in the rural Virginia mountains where his family lived for generations. Perhaps popular authors are finding that their very own families can provide the subject matter for interesting fiction.
All that being said, I do recommend A Painted House to Grisham fans old and new. You’ll enjoy it more if you let go of the expectation that everything out of the author’s printer must involve lawyers and judges. John Grisham is a great storyteller, capable of holding the readers’ attention outside of the courtroom setting. Personally, I happen to like the change and look forward to reading more of Grisham’s work, with or without lawyers.