Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.