Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Drawing on memories of his rural Arkansas childhood, John Grisham creates the character of Luke Chandler, who as an adult reminisces about his experiences as a boy. The primary theme is the importance of family: only by pulling together does the family achieve even moderate success. The Chandlers represent the struggles of American farmers after World War II: Grisham offers as a theme the paradoxes of hardship that many people endured in the midst of the post-war boom that brought prosperity to many, but by no means all. Along with these contrasts, the author includes the theme of the transition away from the agricultural basis to industrialization, including the northward migration in that generation. He also reminds us that war did not end, as Americans went to serve in Korea.
The story is set in 1952 when Luke is seven years old. Luke’s family are tenant farmers who struggle to wrest a successful crop from the land they rent; three generations live and work together. Perennially indebted to the landlords and merchant-suppliers, they eke out a living from a few subsistence crops along with their primary product, cotton. That particular year brought a mixed blessing, as the cotton crop was so plentiful they had to hire many helpers to harvest it all. Alongside the hired local white and migrant Mexican helpers, Luke works all day in the fields. Although there are conflicts within the family, all must pull together to make a go of it. Luke’s mother, Kathleen, is more realistic—or pessimistic—about their chance to leave the debt cycle. She pressures his father, Jesse, to seek permanent employment in the Detroit automobile factories, where he has done several stints, but he finds daunting the commitment to move the entire family up north.
Other family complications bring in the offstage presence of war, as Jesse’s brother is currently unable to help their parents because he is a soldier serving in Korea. The importance of family is dominant, but Jesse is also responsible to the hired workers, among whom racial and national conflicts lead to the death of Hank, a vicious racist, after he attacks a Mexican worker. The weather proves a decisive factor in forcing the family’s decision. That year, record amounts of rain flood the fields and ruin the rest of the harvest. Realizing that he must commit to his own nuclear family, and by doing so perhaps help his parents by sending money back, Luke listens to Kathleen’s pleas at last, and Luke leaves with his parents for a new life in the North.