Ernest James Gaines, the first son of African American parents Manuel and Adrienne Gaines, was born on January 15, 1933, in Oscar, Louisiana, a small town a few miles northwest of Baton Rouge. He grew up in former slave quarters on River Lake Plantation where for six years he attended a one-room elementary school before enrolling in the Augustine Catholic School in nearby New Roads.
At the end of World War II, his mother moved to California to join her second husband, Raphael Colar, a merchant seaman, leaving Gaines behind to be reared by his invalid aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, who had a formative influence on the boy. Although she had never walked in her life, she had extraordinary resiliency and great faith, and Gaines credits her with teaching him fundamental values, above all about suffering with courage and dignity.
Like so many rural black people, after school and over the summer Gaines worked in the sugar-cane and cotton fields, but many of his evenings were given over to reading and writing for his aunt and her illiterate acquaintances. From them he derived a strong sense of a native, oral tradition and his own heritage.
In 1948, when Gaines was fifteen, he moved to Vallejo, California, to live with his mother and stepfather. The move was traumatic for Gaines, who has dwelled on his departure from the quarters and who later returned in his depiction of characters with experiences paralleling his own.
Prompted by his stepfather’s fear that he might fall in with bad company, Gaines spent long, lonely hours in the public library, reading voraciously while trying to cope with his yearning to return to Louisiana. He made his first serious attempt at fiction, writing the initial draft of what eventually became Catherine Carmier (1964), his first novel.
After completing high school and beginning college, Gaines was drafted into the Army, serving in the Pacific from 1953 to 1955. After his discharge, he entered San Francisco State College to study English. While there, he published his first story, “The Turtles,” which helped to win a Wallace...
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