Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422
A Painted House by John Grisham follows the story of a young boy, Luke Chandler, in rural Arkansas. The title of the novel is a reference to the fact that Luke’s family home remains unpainted, a daily reminder of the Chandlers’ low socioeconomic status. Luke and his family are cotton...
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A Painted House by John Grisham follows the story of a young boy, Luke Chandler, in rural Arkansas. The title of the novel is a reference to the fact that Luke’s family home remains unpainted, a daily reminder of the Chandlers’ low socioeconomic status. Luke and his family are cotton farmers, struggling to make a decent living and pay their debts. Throughout the novel, Luke clings to his dream of one day becoming a major league baseball player. As the story unfolds, Luke is privy to some harrowing sights, weighty secrets, and plenty of mischief.
The story begins as Luke and his grandfather search for help with the cotton picking. The harsh reality of cotton picking is noted by Luke, only seven years old:
More field hands meant less cotton for me to pick. For the next month I would go to the fields at sunrise, drape a nine-foot cotton sack over my shoulder, and stare for a moment at an endless row of cotton, the stalks taller than I was, then plunge into them, lost as far as anyone could tell. And I would pick cotton, tearing the fluffy bolls from the stalks at a steady pace, stuffing them into the heavy sack, afraid to look down the row and be reminded of how endless it was, afraid to slow down because someone would notice. My fingers would bleed, my neck would burn, my back would hurt.
They are fortunate enough to hire a host of Mexican migrant workers and the Spruills, a local family considered to be “hill people.” The visiting help is considered an initial blessing, but Luke soon experiences the dangers of men and learns about the intricacies of the human condition. Throughout the story, Luke observes situations that are very adult in nature, such as a difficult childbirth, beatings, and even a brutal murder. These events cause Luke to keep many secrets, and these secrets seem to weigh heavy on his conscience. Luke quickly learns that life is not simple and is often cruel, and this loss of innocence is a catalyst for much of his character growth.
The novel ends with an unfortunate flood which destroys the family’s cotton crop before the harvest can be completed. Luke’s family, devastated from the destruction of their lands, decide to move to the city and start a new life. There is an air of hope in this last decision, as the story closes with the image of Luke’s mother smiling happily in a city bus.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1910
A Painted House is an abrupt and surprising change of pace for legal-thriller author John Grisham, who has been turning out one best-seller after another since 1991 and accumulating countless millions from book sales and movie rights. In this faux memoir inspired by his childhood, he writes about the drudgery and simple pleasures of life on a cotton farm in Arkansas. The narrator, Luke Chandler, is looking back into the past to the time when he was only seven years old and had to work all day in his grandfather’s cotton fields, hoeing weeds when the plants were growing and picking the snowy harvest starting in September and sometimes continuing straight through to December. Critics have complained about the ambiguous tone of the narration. Grisham uses simple words and short sentences to create the illusion that it is a seven-year-old talking, but at the same time the incidents are obviously being described by a grown man—someone about Grisham’s present age—looking back into the past. The book can hardly be called a coming-of-age novel, because the hero-narrator is still only seven when he concludes his story. Although Grisham has earned a fortune by producing one blockbuster novel after another, he shows a certain ingratiating awkwardness and naïveté in venturing into an entirely new genre.
The Chandlers are poor. They stand halfway up the social ladder between sharecroppers and land owners. They rent eighty acres and are chronically in debt to the landlord and the merchants who sell them cotton seed, spare parts for their old vehicles, and the few staples they cannot raise themselves. Like most one-crop farmers, they are at the mercy of the weather, the world’s economy, and the mysterious commodities market. When crops are good the price of a bale of cotton is forced down by the iron law of supply and demand. When the price is high it is because droughts or floods or insects have left the farmers with little cotton to sell. The Chandlers keep a cow and chickens, raise pigs, and have a large vegetable garden. Ironically, these subsistence resources keep them alive, while their eighty acres of inedible and sometimes unharvestable cotton only drive them deeper into debt.
In September, 1952, when Luke is seven years old, nature seems to have given the cotton farmers a bountiful yield, but they are having trouble rounding up pickers. They finally manage to hire a truckload of hardworking, respectful Mexican braceros and a family of unruly, unreliable Arkansas hillbillies. The Mexicans move into the barn and the hill people set up tents in the Chandler’s front yard, making an unsightly mess.
Day after day, the entire Chandler family, including Luke’s mother and grandmother, along with their temporary helpers, go out into the cotton fields and drag their long sacks down the rows until they are too heavy to drag further. Then the cotton is weighed and dumped into a truck to be driven into town to the cotton gin. Even though Luke is only seven years old, he is expected to put in a full day picking cotton. His parents and grandparents are desperate to earn enough to pay down their debts and have something left over to survive another winter. They are nervous about the weather. Their only source of entertainment is their radio. On the hot, humid nights they sit outside and listen to the Saint Louis Cardinals baseball games with pleasure and the weather reports with trepidation.
Luke’s mother Kathleen is the only member of the family who understands the futility of their struggle for existence. She wants her husband to get a factory job “up North” and quit farming for good. Jesse Chandler knows he can make three dollars an hour assembling Buicks in Flint, Michigan. In 1952 there is little competition from foreign car manufacturers, and Americans are buying the gaudy gas guzzlers as fast as they roll off the assembly lines. Jesse has already gone up North several times to keep the family from starving, but he is reluctant to make the commitment to leave Arkansas forever. For one thing, he feels like a cotton farmer and not a factory hand. It is the difference between being independent and becoming a cog in a wheel. More importantly, he does not know how his mother and father can get along without him. His brother Ricky is off fighting in Korea and might never come back to work on the farm. If he did come back, he might get married, start his own farming operation, or move away. Ricky has gotten a local girl pregnant. She believes he loves her and will marry her, although she belongs to a family of lowly sharecroppers. One of the dramatic elements of Grisham’s story has to do with the question of what is happening to Ricky overseas and whether he will ever come home to resume a normal life.
A Painted House is autobiographical, but Grisham obviously realized that a whole book about life on a farm could become monotonous. With his sharply honed professional skill he has inserted fictional elements to make his story dramatic. Hank Spruill commits a brutal murder which the young protagonist actually witnesses. Luke is pressured to keep his mouth shut because the Chandlers cannot afford to lose the labor the Spruills provide. If Hank is arrested, his family will pack up and move away. Furthermore, Hank has repeatedly threatened to disembowel Luke with his switchblade if the boy gives him away and might even murder other members of the Chandler family. Luke’s parents, strict Baptists, have taught the boy that he should always tell the truth. Now, in painful isolation, he is learning the conflict between the ideal and the cold reality.
Meanwhile the sadistic Hank Spruill, the only human antagonist in the plot, is deliberately provoking the Mexican laborers. A minor war seems inevitable. Hank finally gets his comeuppance when he attacks one of the braceros on a bridge and ends up floating down the river with a knife wound in his abdomen. Luke, true to his role as the viewpoint character, just happens to be on hand to witness this death duel and has another secret on his conscience for the rest of his life.
The weather is favorable, but there are radio reports of rain and flooding in nearby states. Occasional thunderstorms hold up harvesting for a day or so, but the creeks and the river are still held within their banks. Luke’s grandfather hopes to make enough money from this year’s crop to pay down some debts. This is the major dramatic question of the loosely structured plot. It is not answered until the very end when the black clouds move in with their full fury and rain finally becomes universal. The creeks dump more and more water into the Saint Francis River. The river overflows its banks and relentlessly floods the lowlands. No more cotton can be salvaged. In addition to sustaining another financial loss, the god-fearing Chandlers are forced to shelter and feed the Latchers, a big family of sharecroppers who have not only lost everything they own but have to be rescued from drowning by boat. One of the Latchers is the teenage mother of Ricky’s newborn child.
This disaster in a year of bountiful crops is the last straw for Luke’s mother. She has come to hate farming and what Karl Marx once called the idiocy of rural life. She insists that her husband take her and Luke to Michigan, where he can do his parents more good by earning cash money and sending some of it back home. There are painful scenes of separation which echo the real separations that have been going on in the United States since the exodus from country to the cities began around the beginning of the twentieth century.
Some of the dramatic questions which have kept the reader turning the pages never get answered. The reader is left wondering whether Ricky survives the Korean War and whether he comes back to marry pathetic little Libby Latcher. The reader is left to wonder what ever happened to Luke’s grandparents. Did they ever finish painting their house? How long did the Latchers with their horde of children continue to live in the Chandler barn? Grisham may be planning to publish a sequel in which he ties up some of the loose ends. Otherwise, the reader will be left to guess that what happened was about the same as what has happened to millions of other rural Americans. Gramps and Gran held on as long as they could and then followed their children to the big city, where they were hapless dependents until they died. Ricky probably survived Korea and returned to America but did not marry Libby. The Latcher children, including Libby’s illegitimate son, either died or somehow managed to grow up and moved away, trading serfdom for wage slavery.
Grisham’s novel is significant, not only because it represents an interesting departure by one of America’s most prominent writers, but because the Chandler’s story, like the story of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), symbolizes what has been happening to America’s farm families, who used to represent 90 percent of the population, as the result of technological innovation, economic pressures, free public education, and changing mores. Sharecropping is no longer a viable institution. Small farmers are being driven off the land and replaced by agribusiness. The cities offer opportunities and attractions the younger people cannot resist, and life on the land seems more and more grueling, monotonous, and fruitless. The little farmhouses and barns are being bulldozed, the fences torn down, the land tilled and harvested by gigantic machines that move for miles in one direction before they ever have to turn around. At harvest time the fields are illuminated all night long by the blazing headlights of mechanical monsters that never get tired or hungry.
Grisham’s novel is a bittersweet memorial of the way things were in America’s bucolic past. Some of his dramatic elements sound derivative. When Luke induces the Mexican migrant workers to help paint his grandfather’s house by making them think it is good fun, the incident is so reminiscent of Mark Twain that Grisham rather self-consciously makes Luke’s mother say, “Well, if it isn’t Tom Sawyer,” to which Luke improbably replies, “Who’s he?” When Luke is forced to lie about having seen the murder committed by Hank Spruill, the reader is reminded of Tom Sawyer’s troubles with Injun Joe. When the Chandlers and Latchers are ruined by the big flood, the reader is reminded of the climax of The Grapes of Wrath, especially as there is a newborn infant and a flood involved in the family tragedy.
It is in the genuine little details of daily life, the parts that are true to Grisham’s childhood experience, and not in the invented dramatic material, that the novel shines. Grisham is to be commended for turning away, at least temporarily, from his outrageously lucrative, and somewhat redundant, legal thrillers and writing truthful regional literature in the tradition of great American authors such as Hamlin Garland, Sherwood Anderson, Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Wallace Stegner.
Sources for Further Study
The American Spectator 34 (April, 2001): 90.
Booklist 97 (February 1, 2001): 1020.
Library Journal 126 (March 1, 2001): 131.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (March 4, 2001): 31.