By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: John Grisham
Narration by: Michael Beck
John Grisham, like William Faulkner, writes about a white Mississippian’s perspective on race. Grisham resurrects Jake Brigance, a fictional white Mississippi’ lawyer in “A Time to Kill”. (“A Time to Kill” is about Jake’s defense of a black man’s revenge killing of two white men; i.e. two rapists of a father’s ten year old daughter.)
Grisham’s sequel to “A Time to Kill” is a book titled “Sycamore Row”. Jake is hired as executor of a Mississippi white man’s will; i.e. a will of a man who hangs himself from a sycamore tree. Two days before committing suicide, the deceased mails a copy of his will to Jake with a cover letter asking him to defend the validity of his will against a sure challenge from his children. The suicide victim does not know Jake except as a lawyer who successfully defended a black man for the murder of two white rapists.
The suicide victim’s name is Seth Hubbard. Hubbard commits suicide because he is dying from cancer. The new handwritten will gifts ninety percent of a twenty-four million dollar estate to Hubbard’s black house keeper, Lettie Lang. Five percent of the twenty-four million is to be given to Hubbard’s brother, if and when he can be found. The remaining five percent is to go to Hubbard’s church. The new will is hand written, days before Hubbard commits suicide. The new will denies any inheritance to the deceased’s children or grandchildren. Because the new will is written within days of their father’s suicide, the children sue the estate for reinstatement of an earlier will, a will written by a well-known law firm that gives the bulk of the estate to Hubbard’s children. The lawyers hired by Hubbard’s children argue that the handwritten will is invalid. The lawyers argue that Seth Hubbard was too ill and heavily medicated to be in his right mind when he writes the revised will. The lawyers also suggest that the housekeeper unduly influences the sick man to change his will.
The most interesting part of Grisham’s story is its nuanced explanation of Mississippi society. Grisham, like Faulkner, is from Mississippi. Both authors revile racism though raised in a society known for the Ku Klux Klan and its reprehensible history of racial discrimination and violence. Both authors write about Mississippi citizens who reject racist beliefs and demonstrate a fiercely intelligent understanding of justice. These Mississippi residents wear no capes and have no halos. Like all human beings they succumb to the sins of greed, uncontrolled power, and hubris. Some drink too much, some cheat on their spouses, and some think no one is better at what they do than them, but they know right from wrong.
Lettie Lang is a poor black woman with a husband that drinks too much; i.e. a husband who provides only erratic financial and parental support to his family. Both parents are inconsistently employed but Lettie is the primary bread-winner and support for the family. The husband disappears for days at a time, gambles and drinks his money away, and is eventually arrested for drunken driving that kills two white children in a car wreck.
In contrast to Lettie’s drunken husband, their oldest daughter leaves home to join the Army. She escapes poverty, takes some college courses, learns German and Italian, and returns home after six years of military service. She introduces herself to Jake Brigance when Lettie is compelled by her husband to hire a shady big city civil rights lawyer to represent Lettie in the trial. The civil rights lawyer is more concerned about advancing his career as a black civil rights lawyer than representing Lettie’s interest. Jake convinces the daughter that the civil rights lawyer should be fired. Jake also, albeit self-servingly, hires the daughter to help defend the validity of Seth Hubbard’s re-written will.
As the story develops, Jake is a small town lawyer that takes on powerful big city law firms to defend the deceased’s will. The likelihood of success is slim. The will is handwritten by a man taking narcotic pain pills that impair his judgment. He is not an attorney and has no one witness to his will. The bulk of his assets are deeded to a housemaid that appears to have only worked for him for three years.
It is a case that will pay the executor of the will handsomely because the contested estate has to pay; regardless of the courts determination of validity. The will is challenged in a court of law managed by a judge who has deep experience as a judge but is hobbled by age, ill-health, and a hubristic sense of infallibility.
At times, it looks like Lettie, either purposely or inadvertently takes advantage of a man nearing death to write a new will; making her a beneficiary. What could the motive be for a dying man to disown his children and give away ninety percent of twenty-four million dollars to a black housekeeper? Why would a terminally ill millionaire, who wants to die, decide to hang himself from a Sycamore tree rather than choose a less gruesome way of death? In the course of the story, a listener begins to understand the difference between the hateful and distorted beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan and a rational citizen of Mississippi.
John Grisham is not William Faulkner, but he is a good Mississippi’ story teller with an understanding of human nature. It may be true that Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas have the highest black lynching histories in the United States. Grisham and Faulkner write what they see and what they think they know. They just happen to be from Mississippi where there are good and bad actors–like everywhere else in the world. Bias, discrimination, and hateful acts infect every human being and every state in the world.