A Painted House Summary
by John Grisham

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A Painted House Summary

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.

Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2,332 words.)