Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Painted House by John Grisham

A Painted House
John Grisham
ohn Grisham shows his versatility as a writer in the story of a seven-year-old boy who is privy to adult secrets. The conflict Luke Chandler faces is the grist of Grisham's novel. Unlike the courtroom dramas that trademark earlier books, A PAINTED HOUSE takes place in rural Arkansas in 1952, where the setting is a family's cotton farm. An only child, Luke is introduced to two migrant groups, the hill people and the Mexicans. His childhood is turned upside down when they interact with the Chandler family.

The outsiders arrive in Black Oak to work in the cotton harvest for Luke's father and grandfather, who struggle to pay their bills. The hill people come from the mountains in the northern part of the state and are considered hillbillies. The low-class Spruills pitch a tent and set their camp in the Chandler front yard --- an unforgivable act, according to Luke.

By contrast, the Mexicans live in the barn. One of them, Cowboy, terrifies Luke when he shows off a switchblade and the intent to use it if necessary. Conflict erupts when Hank Spruill, a hulking giant of a young man, bullies the Mexicans. Hank antagonizes everyone he meets in the small town of Black Oak. Luke witnesses one brutal thrashing that Hank gives a local boy. The consequences of that encounter remain a dark secret the boy is forced to keep.

Grisham develops a suspenseful story, characteristic of his earlier books. A PAINTED HOUSE is a tale of social ambiguities inherent in small communities. On the one side, Luke's family is financially superior to the visiting clans. But he is made to feel inferior when the malicious Hank points out that the Chandlers' clapboard house is a gray, unpainted wood. Hank boasts that the Spruill residence in Eureka Springs is painted white.

Luke's love for baseball consumes him. He longs to play one day for the St. Louis Cardinals, his ticket out of the farming community. He saves his meager wages from picking cotton to buy a Cardinals jacket. However, Luke makes a choice based on friendship that will complicate his dream.

Grisham's words allow the reader to become one with his characters and their surroundings. Ordinary lives become complex with tiny twists of plot. His characters come alive on the page. One cares about the outcome of each side story in the entire piece. A PAINTED HOUSE is set apart from ordinary coming-of-age stories by Grisham's artful use of sensory details. One can hear a hissing, coiled snake, feel the chill blast of a tornado's fury and smell the stench of water-soaked cotton balls.
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