John Grisham’s The Runaway Jury blends a mystery into a courtroom drama in a most unusual way: Readers know what’s happening and who’s doing it, but they don’t know why until the last minute why it’s being done.
The novel is set in contemporary (1990s) Biloxi, Mississippi, where a widow is suing tobacco companies for actual and punitive damages in death of her husband. Similar cases have been tried elsewhere, but juries in those cases did not agree on verdict.
Both sides know a decisive victory for the plaintiff would start a stampede of suits against the tobacco companies. Two teams of “the brightest legal minds and the largest egos in the country” are assembled to do battle.
Although both sides have done extensive pretrial investigation of the 194 potential jurors, neither side has been able to learn anything about Nicholas Easter, a 27-year-old clerk in a Computer Hut store.
Readers see the shenanigans of the courtroom adversaries and the mysterious behavior of Easter and Marlee. She’s a sexy blonde who calls the tobacco company’s lawsuit manager with advance information about what will happen in the next court session.
Grisham’s story is riveting and the historical detail is an education in itself. The insights for public speakers are priceless.
In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia, revolted, slaughtering whites mercilessly.
The confession of the revolt’s leader, Nathaniel Turner, presented at his trial and subsequently published as a pamphlet, is the factual basis of William Styron’s novel.
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
Random House, 1966, 1967; 428 p. 1967 bestseller #2. My grade: A.
Nat Turner’s capture.
Nat’s mother was a cook, so Nat became a “house nigger.” The Turner family taught him to read and figure, gave him carpentry training, bought a Bible, and promised he’d be given his freedom at age 25.
By the time Nat was 25, faced with dwindling income from over-worked land, Turner family had sold all their possessions—including Nat—and left Virginia for good.
Nat’s freedom disappeared with Marse Samuel.
Nat’s Bible reading and his ache for companionship with like-minded people, gradually twist into the conviction that God wants him to lead a slave rebellion.
Styron avoids the familiar clichés of slave novels. Characters, both black and white, are victims of conditions they can’t control. The worst physical and mental suffering among blacks and whites occur among those least affluent even at the best of times.
Styron’s tale could easily be moved to Baltimore or St. Louis in 2015.
His novel is a wrenching reminder that how we treat individuals matters more than our opinions about race.
Ellen Glasgow’s sets The Deliverance, a tale of repressed sexual passion and hatred, in the tobacco fields of Reconstruction-era Virginia.
When the Confederacy lost the war, the Blakes lost their slaves and money. Former overseer Bill Fletcher bought their plantation for $7000.
The remnants of the Blake family were forced to move to what had been the overseer’s house where they keep the truth of their economic situation from blind old Mrs. Blake.
Young Christopher Blake hates Fletcher with a passion. When opportunity comes to get back at Fletcher by turning his grandson against him, Chris takes it.
Fletcher’s granddaughter, Maria, arouses Chris’s passions, too. Fortunately she marries and goes to Europe before his rage turns to rape.
Though Glasgow could have taken the story in any of several directions from there, she sticks to the promise of her subtitle and produces a romance.
The printed Southern dialect is annoying, but there’s not much of it past the first few chapters.
In the intensity of its characters’ loves and hatreds, The Deliverance reminds me of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. In Glasgow’s novel, however, the main characters seem to outgrow their hatred rather than spending their passion. Even Glasgow’s minor characters mature in ways that are both surprising and realistic.
John Fox Jr.’s Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come was on the 1903 and 1904 bestseller list. His The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was on the lists in 1908 and 1909. By 1913, readers were ready for a new novel by the popular author.
Fox obliged with The Heart of the Hills.
The story concerns two pairs of cousins, one pair bred from the the feuding Hawns and Honeycutts of the Cumberland Mountains, the other carrying the more genteel bloodline of the Blue Grass. Fox repeatedly drags the cousins up the mountains and back down so they and readers can see the vast difference between the two cultures.
That’s about all readers see.
The characters are rudely drawn, the plot so disjointed it reads like Fox dropped the manuscript and failed to get the pages back in the right order before publication.
The story is padded out with long passages about Kentucky politics, the importance of education for the development of the frontier, and the disastrous impact tobacco had on the state’s environment and economy.
Drivin’ Woman is a historical romance set against the backdrop of the tobacco industry.
As the Civil War ends, America “Merry” Moncure runs what’s left of her family and its plantation. Merry marries a cousin, Fant Annabel, and moves with him to Kentucky from her Virginia home.
When Fant jumps from a riverboat to avoid a murder charge, he leaves Merry penniless and pregnant. Fortunately, a distant relative who assumes as everyone does that Fant us dead, leaves his farm in trust to Merry’s child.
Merry drives herself and her hired help hard to make the farm profitable, but her “late husband” reappears stealthily every few years, leaving her cashless and pregnant. The community and her four children consider Merry a whore.
Meanwhile, few savvy traders are turning tobacco into a major industry. By the time Fant is killed in a shootout in Merry’s yard, the trading syndicate has a stranglehold on tobacco farmers. One of its leaders is Merry’s brother-in-law.
The farmers unite to sell their tobacco as a block to keep the price up, but it’s Merry who saves the day.
Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier chose her historical setting well. It provides cover for a contrived plot and characters that never quite ring true. There’s plenty of entertainment in this novel, and a generous dollop of historical insight as well.
Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier
My Grade: C+
1942 Bestseller #5