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...
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