Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 843
Although Willie Traynor is from Memphis, Tennessee, the people of Mississippi see him as a northerner. Through Willie, Grisham offers a glimpse of Southern life that is both affectionate and critical. On the positive side, Willie praises Southerners for being warm, gracious, and polite. Grisham provides many examples in the book of folks protecting their neighbors, as well as Willie. For example, Harry Rex Vonner brings him a gun and teaches him how to shoot it because he knows just how dangerous the Padgitt family is. Willie also notes that people in Clanton frequently ask about his health and invite him to church. Religion comes across as an important and integral part of Southern life. Willie notices that many Southerners will rush to help other people but are distrustful of outsiders. Willie notes that "they don't really trust you unless they trusted your grandfather."
Of course, racism is the biggest flaw Willie sees in Mississippi society. Another flaw is the corrupt political system that allows families like the Padgitts to flourish and institutions like segregation to be upheld. As editor, Willie attacks corruption and tries to be a force for positive change in Ford County.
One of the book's major themes is the racism of the South. At one point, Willie observes that it is not uncommon to see signs reading, "Still Fighting the War," meaning that for many, the Civil War has not truly ended. There are desegregation battles, and the white parents' fear of their children attending school with blacks. Grisham also includes Miss Callie and Esau's story of trying to register to vote, and portrays the ways in which blacks are routinely persecuted in the community.
As editor of the paper, Willie tries to change things as much as possible. When he features the Ruffin family on his front page, he is not thinking in terms of a "colored" story, but in terms of a good human interest story. In his personal life, Willie strives for integration as well. He says he wants his housewarming party to be the first integrated party in Clanton.
When Willie Traynor moves to Clanton, Mississippi, he learns the difference between "family money" and "wealth." A number of Clanton residents are treated with the respect usually given the wealthy, even though they show no signs of being financially well-off. Spot Caudle is eccentric, as are the Hocutts, but because they have family money they are treated with respect and allowed their eccentricities. Willie realizes family money has nothing to do with wealth. In fact, most of the people with family money in Clanton are poor. However, they come from white families and are usually descended from former plantation owners. Their families own big houses with porches, and they are raised from birth with the notion that they are privileged people. As Willie says, "Acreage and trust funds helped somewhat, but Mississippi was full of insolvent blue bloods who inherited the status of family money. It could not be earned. It had to be handed down at birth."
Grisham is not the first Mississippi writer to write about family money. William Faulkner's novels and short stories, set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, are full of destitute characters who enjoy prestige because of family money.
While The Last Juror could not be characterized as a religious book, the Ruffin family is a very religious family. Miss Callie's belief permeates everything she does, and because she is such a central character in the book, religion takes on an important role. According to her children, Miss Callie's faith in God is one of the reasons they have all achieved so much. Faith in God and in His rules about hatred and judging prevent Miss Callie from becoming bitter over the hatred and racism she has had to face.
The Ruffins are not the only characters in the book who are faithful Christians. Margaret Wright and Lenny Fargarson are both described as religious people, and both gain a large measure of peace and comfort because of it.
Willie is questioned about his faith by Miss Callie. She worries about the state of his soul, as does Margaret. In addition, people in Ford County are taken aback that Willie does not attend a church. He calls himself "the most famous derelict in town." It seems that in the South during this time, one must attend church so as not to be seen as a suspicious character in the eyes of the neighbors. Willie decides to visit every church in Ford County and write about it on the Religion page of the newspaper. He notes that there are no Catholics, Episcopalians, or Mormons in the county, but that it is heavily Baptist with the Pentecostals in second place. Both of these religious communities are quite fractured, however. Willie was raised Episcopalian, so visiting churches with long, emotional services is foreign to him. Willie is a religious outsider in Clanton, and through his experiences and observations Grisham illustrates the complexity and contradiction in the community's religious life.
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