Archive for October 12, 2014

sycamore row 2014I was encouraged to read Sycamore Row by John Grisham after reading posts about the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction on Bill Selnes impressive blog Mysteries and More. Bill is a lawyer in Saskatchewan and he seems to be the sort of legal representative we would all like to have on our side. Sycamore Row is billed as the sequel to A Time To Kill [1989] Grisham’s first book, famously rejected by publishers, and deals with the challenging  racial atmosphere in rural Mississippi in the late 1980s.

Seth Hubbard has secretly built up a vast fortune in timber and real estate but has terminal lung cancer. He decides to commit suicide as he can’t stand the pain and prepares a new handwritten will disinheriting his worthless children, and leaving 5% to his church, 5% to his long lost brother Ancil, and 90% to his black housekeeper and carer Lettie Lang.  He sends a copy of his will and a covering letter to arrive after his death to lawyer Jake Brigance explaining his family will challenge the new will and entreats him that ” he wants this will defended at all costs…”

Fight them, Mr Brigance, to the bitter end . We must prevail.

Sycamore Row is an excellent book with a strong message against racism, and although the reader is given a hint about why Seth leaves so much on his estate to Lettie this does not spoil the story. The reader is given a lot of information about lawyering in small towns, and learns that although the sheriff of Ford County Ozzie Walls is black the county is still “segregated” socially.

old natchezFord County was 74 percent white, but Ozzie had won his election and reelection by wide margins. The blacks adored him because he was one of their own. The whites respected him because he was a tough cop and a former football star at Clanton High. In some aspects of life in the Deep South, football was slowly transcending race.

The reader is drawn in to the early chapters as we see Seth’s children Hershel and Ramona treat Lettie apallingly in such an offensive manner that it reminded me of the hlpfilm, The Help, even though that was set two decades earlier. Jake is fighting against bigger legal firms who will use any means to influence the mainly white jury that will be selected in Ford County. Jake represents the estate of Seth Hubbard, and when Simeon her disreputable husband persuades her to hire her own firm of black lawyers from Memphis the situation becomes more complex as her kinfolk arrive in droves to share in her predicted good fortune.

Sycamore Row is a long book and while the trial preliminaries drag on for months Grisham keeps the reader glued to the page with character sketches, and tales of life in rural Mississippi. 

“If you say so. You ever have a restrainin’ order?”

“No, but my brother did. Bitch convinced a judge he was dangerous, which he was, and a judge told him to stay away from the house and keep his distance in public. Didn’t bother him. Killed her anyway.”

Sycamore Row won the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction awarded by the University of Alabama to a book length work of fiction that illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change. 

I think John Grisham’ Sycamore Row  was a worthy winner of the prize, because this book despite its length and the very serious and important subject matter was an easy read.