Historical Context

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In the 1954 decision Brown v. the Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court struck down the idea of "separate but equal" that had been the country's guideline for racial equality since the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson. The Brown decision meant that black children must be granted access to the same schools and facilities as their white peers. However, many places in the deeply segregated South did not intend to desegregate without a fight. In some cases, the National Guard was sent in to protect black students as they entered formerly "white only" schools.

Many states fought desegregation through the courts. Mississippi avoided desegregation for a decade in this way. Not until the successful court cases of a number of black families in Mississippi, supported by the NAACP, did schools slowly start to integrate. Schools usually adopted a "freedom of choice" rule, whereby black students could voluntarily choose to go to white schools. Many white citizens fought desegregation with intimidation and violence. Black parents who sent their children to white-dominated schools could lose their jobs, leases, or credit at the bank. Sometimes there was violence, or a burning cross was erected on a family's lawn. In The Last Juror, Sam Ruffin becomes the only black student in the formerly all-white middle school. He is beaten regularly until he learns to use his fists and fight back. No other black families in Clanton are willing to put their children in the same situation.

Mississippi continued to fight desegregation until the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Alexander v. Holmes in 1969. In the case, which involved thirty Mississippi school districts, the court struck down all types of dual-school districts and ordered that desegregation must happen immediately. Many schools in Mississippi actually made the changes mid-school year, but in The Last Juror, the school district desegregates at the beginning of a new school year.

Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive events in U.S. history in the 1960s–1970s, and to understand why, one must go back much earlier. Vietnam, then called French Indochina, was a French colony for nearly a century before the Second World War. During the peace talks after that war, Vietnam was divided into two halves, communist (North Vietnam) and non-communist (South Vietnam). The French wanted to hold on to their colony, and for over seven years there was a war between the French and the Vietnamese. The United States gave financial help to the French in order to stop the spread of communism. During peace conferences in 1954, it was decided that the French would give up its claim to Indochina, and Vietnam would be temporarily divided. Ho Chi Minh, President of North Vietnam, promised to reunite the country under a communist banner. Guerrilla fighters called the Vietcong were sent into the south to disrupt the country's attempts at postwar reconstruction.

The United States aided South Vietnam because of its strong stand against communism. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy began sending U.S. troops to Vietnam to act as advisors. Things changed in 1964, when two U.S. ships were bombed in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Lyndon B. Johnson retaliated by bombing North Vietnam outposts. Congress also passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave the president broad powers for waging a war in Vietnam. After that, U.S. troops were sent to Vietnam and the United States started bombing North Vietnamese targets.

At first, many Americans supported the war, which was seen as a war against communist aggressors. However, this changed in 1968. U.S. troops had fought in Vietnam for over three years by then, with little to show for it. In January of that year, the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive. It was a massive, coordinated attack on the United States Embassy in Saigon, as well as other key cities and military bases throughout South Vietnam. It was not a military success for the North Vietnamese, who were ultimately forced back over the border, but it was a political defeat for the United States. Seeing images on television of the embassy under siege and the fierce fighting taking place, many Americans realized that the government's optimistic predictions about the war's imminent end were not realistic. Much of the American media, including respected television anchorman Walter Cronkite, spoke out against the war.

On campuses around the country, college students held protests condemning the war. In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon began withdrawing troops, but later that year the fighting escalated again. In April 1970, President Nixon announced he was expanding the fighting to Cambodia, and students erupted in protest. The protests turned deadly in May 1970, when National Guardsmen were called to Kent State University in Ohio to help control the protesters. The Guardsmen opened fire on the students, killing four and injuring nine. Two weeks later, police shot and killed two protestors at Jackson State University in Mississippi. These two incidents are still bitterly remembered.

Vietnam veterans returning from the war often found themselves the enemy in the eyes of their peers. Unlike previous veterans of foreign wars in American history, these men and women were not welcomed home with parades and glory. Many returned to the United States with drug or alcohol problems. Many soldiers in Vietnam wanted to dull both the pain of being in an unpopular war far from home and the fear of imminent death. In The Last Juror, this situation is shown through Bubba Crockett and his friends. All of them are soured by their war experiences. Large numbers of young men publicly burned their draft cards, and thousands who were drafted fled to Canada, Australia, or other countries. Sam Ruffin makes this choice in the novel, spurred on by his friends and siblings. President Jimmy Carter pardoned all draft evaders in 1978—almost 10,000 people.

Public protest against the war grew during the early 1970s. In 1973, a formal peace treaty was signed between the United States and Vietnam, and President Nixon began the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The war in Vietnam finally ended on April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell to the Vietcong. The bitterness of the war years has dulled, but the memory has not, which is evident whenever the United States faces a new war. One of the favorite cries of the anti-war movement is inevitably, "not another Vietnam."

Literary Style

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Double Narrative

In literature, plot means the pattern of events in a story. Usually, a novel has a main plot and perhaps one or two sub-plots. But The Last Juror seems to have two plots that inter-twine with one another. The first plot is the Rhoda Kassellaw murder, which includes all the materials about Danny Padgitt's trial. The other plot is the Willie-Miss Callie plot, and the slow building of their friendship. Of course, Miss Callie appears in both plots since she is a juror on the Padgitt case. But often Willie seems to be telling two different stories, and readers must be careful to keep the threads of the plots straight. Sometimes the story feels a little disjointed, yet Willie is recounting the events thirty years after they happened. This nonlinear style seems appropriate because it reflects how a person's memories work.

In other places in the novel, Willie's narrative is unrelated to either the Padgitt case or Miss Callie. These episodes fill out his memory of the time, provide a fuller picture of life in Clanton, and offer insight into Willie's character.

Episodic Plot

An episodic plot is arranged as a series of separate episodes. This allows the writer to shift the place, time and viewpoint of the narrative. One thing that might confuse readers of The Last Juror is the sheer number of characters. The story covers nine years and, in that time, dozens of characters float in and out of the story. Because of the episodic nature of the writing, a character may show up only once and never reappear in the narrative. However, the writing is so vivid that even characters who appear only briefly seem to belong in the story. For example, the story of Mr. DeJarnette's suicide gives color to the novel, but moves nothing along in terms of plot. However, these minor characters help readers understand both Clanton and Ford County. In many ways, Clanton is as much a character in the novel as any other.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on September 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481


Bearden, Michelle, "An Interview with John Grisham," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 8, February 22, 1993, pp. 70-71.

Bearn, Mark, "Southern Comfort," in New Statesman, Vol. 133, February 23, 2004, pp. 54-56.

Berthel, Ron, "'Legal Thriller' Only One Way to Describe Grisham's New Novel," for The Associated Press, February 3, 2004, BC cycle.

Blitzer, Charles, "From the Center," in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 18, Issue 3, Summer 94, p. 160.

Donohue, Dierdre, "Last Juror is a Tale of 2 Grishams," in USA Today, January 27, 2004,Final Edition, Life Section, p. 1D.

Dyer, Richard, "Book Review, The Last Juror," in Boston Globe, February 2, 2004, Third Edition, Living Section, p. E1.

Grady, Matt, "Perspective of The Last Juror Adds to Grisham's Writing," in America's Intelligence Wire, March 11, 2004.

Grisham, John, The Last Juror, Random House, 2004.

Hunter, Marjorie, "A Re-Entry Plan," in New York Times, September 17, 1974, p. 1.

John Grisham Online, www.randomhouse.com/features/grisham/

"The Last Juror Book Review," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 251, February 2, 2004, p. 59.

Mohr, Charles, "10,000 Affected Now," in New York Times, January 22, 1977, p. 47.

Oberdorfer, Don, "Tet: Who Won?," in Smithsonian, Vol. 35, Issue 8, November 2004, pp. 117-22.

Reese, Jennifer, Losing Appeal? Legal Pyrotechnics and Melodrama Awkwardly Mix in John Grisham's "The Last Juror," in Entertainment Weekly, February 13, 2004. p. 74.

"School Desegregation in Mississippi," University of Southern Mississippi's Civil Rights Documentation Project, www.usm.edu/crdp/html/cd/desegregation.htm

Further Reading

Appy, Christian G, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, Viking Books, 2003.

This book is designed to be an oral history, giving voice to people from all sides of the Vietnam War—officials from both the United States and Vietnam, as well as words from widows of soldiers, civilians who helped in the war effort as well as war protestors.

Fireside, Harvey and Sarah Betsey Fuller, Brown v. Board of Education: Equal Schooling for All, Landmark Supreme Court Cases Series, Enslow Publishers, 1994.

An objective and well-written book, aimed at giving high school students a solid understanding of this groundbreaking case. To help readers understand, it includes photos, quotations from both sides of the battle and explanations of the judges' opinions.

Galt, Margot Fortunato, Stop This War!: American Protest of the Conflict in Vietnam, Lerner Publishing, 2000.

Galt interviewed many former conscientious objectors who give their viewpoint about the Vietnam war. She also gives information about protest groups, the war policies of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and the Kent State killings.

Maraniss, David, They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

This book gives a good overview of the peace movement in America, focusing on Wisconsin and the battle situation in Vietnam.

Walter, Mildred Pitts, Mississippi Challenge, Simon & Shuster Children's Publishing, 1992.

Walter writes an objective and thorough non-fiction book in which she outlines the history of blacks in Mississippi from before the Civil War through the mid-1960s. She paints a stark picture, especially of how whites in Mississippi tried to prevent blacks from voting. The book includes good notes and a bibliography.

Media Adaptations

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23

  • The Last Juror was released in an unabridged audio version on CD by Random House Audio in 2004. It is narrated by Michael Beck.

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