In a rural town in Louisiana in the late 1940's a poorly educated young black man, Jefferson, is in the wrong place at the wrong time: he is in a liquor store with two friends when they murder the white storekeeper. Jefferson is unfairly convicted of murder and sentenced to the electric chair by a white judge and jury.

His defense lawyer, in trying to stave off the death sentence, labels him a "hog"--and it is this label that Jefferson's godmother wants disproved. She enlists the help of the narrator of the novel, Grant Wiggins, the plantation schoolteacher.

Wiggins agrees to talk with Jefferson only out of a sense of duty--he is an unhappy, angry man who dreamt of escape from his impoverished youth yet returned to his hometown after a university education to teach in the same one-room parish school he attended. Despite humiliation at the hands of the white sheriff, Jefferson's lack of cooperation, and his own sense of futility and uncertain faith, Wiggins forges a bond with Jefferson that leads to wisdom and courage.


This book has much to teach us about the isolation, stigma, loneliness and theological questioning that a death sentence entails. Although in the novel it is a sentence handed down by a judge, parallels can be drawn with terminal illness.

Wiggins, a teacher of values malgre lui, offers empathy, friendship, a window to the world (via a radio) and a means of coping (he gives Jefferson a notebook to record his thoughts). These are all gifts we should offer anyone facing death. Perhaps, with the acceptance of these gifts, those near death can truly "die with dignity."


This novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award.


Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count