Posted: October 12, 2014 in Book Awards, Historical, review, USA

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.      

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    So glad you liked this one, Norman. It is indeed an impressive read. I’m glad you mentioned Bill’s blog too, as it’s a very crime fiction blog. Like your own, it’s one of my must-reads.

  2. I’ve always been slightly too intimidated to pick up a John Grisham book but your review of this particular book has changed my mind. It sounds like it manages to probe a serious issue and at the same time be an entertaining read. Thanks you!

  3. Bill Selnes says:

    Norman: Thanks for the kind personal words and mention of my blog. I appreciate them.

    I am glad you enjoyed Sycamore Row. I think Grisham is at his best when he is telling a story set in the Deep South where he grew up and practised as a lawyer.

    • Norman Price says:

      Bill have the Paul Goldstein winner from last year on order thanks to your blog. I feel certain that I will enjoy a book if it has been recommended by bloggers whose opinions I respect.

  4. kathy d. says:

    I’m so glad you liked this book. I picked it up, began reading and could not put it down until I reluctantly turned the last page. It was a book I couldn’t wait to return to whenever I had other things to do or places to go.
    Yes, I did figure out why Seth left most of his funds to Lettie Lang pretty early in the book. But that didn’t ruin it for me at all. I enjoyed the read, the characters (something Grisham excels at is his characters), the humor and the story.
    Grisham has a real talent for educating the reader about some horrific history without missing a beat in his plotting or making anyone feel like the book suddenly became an article or a lecture. No him.
    He can pull it off very well.
    I just hope that another Jake Brigance book will be published. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for Grisham’s next book, “Gray Mountain,” featuring a woman attorney who goes from Wall Street to Appalachian coal country and works for a legal aid office. I’m counting days for that one to be available.

    • Norman Price says:

      Kathy, I will look forward to Gray Mountain because I love the scenery and small towns tucked away in the Appalachians and the contrast with Wall Street will be interesting. Salary and scenery.:-)

  5. Norman Price says:

    It is absolutely incredible that a lawyer and someone who has been in the public eye for so long should get himself on the wrong side of such a serious subject as child pornography.
    We are used to politicians misspeaking, and pop stars making stupid comments, but I never expected after reading some of his books that John Grisham would join them.

  6. kathy d. says:

    I don’t know why John Grisham said what he did. Maybe he’s separating out looking at it and not actively doing anything about it. He’s an attorney so he may be looking at legal fine points.
    I worked in a civil liberties office (loved the job and the people), but I differed on some issues,
    looking at child pornography being one of them. It’s not just the looking. It’s the violence against children or financial or other coercion that is behind the photos or videos that’s so horrific.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s