The first book of 2019 read toward my annual goal of 100 – John Grisham: The Reckoning
The Reckoning is a sprawling epic centered around the murder of a popular preacher by a well-respected farmer, Pete Banning, in rural Mississippi just after the end of World War II.
As Grisham explains in his Author’s Note, he heard a tale of one prominent man murdering another in the 1930’s in a small town of the state. The murderer refused to offer a motive for the crime, including when the governor offered to have his death sentence commuted if he only revealed his reason. The secret went to the grave when the man was hanged. As Grisham says, he doesn’t even know if that story is true, but great authors take a a nugget like that and build a story.
The novel is broken into three distinct sections: The Killing, The Boneyard, and The Betrayal.
The first section focuses on the murder, the trial, and the immediate aftermath. The victim is the popular minister of the largest local church in town—a church built by the grandfather of Pete Banning, who happens to be a war hero and a large land owner and cotton farmer. This section also serves to paint an image of the racial and economic divides as well as the realities of small-town life in rural Mississippi in the 1940’s.
The second flashes back to the 1920’s and follows the life of the farmer through his time at West Point, his return to the farm, his reinduction to the military just before the outbreak of World War II, and, most importantly, the horrors of being in the Philippines under Japanese occupation. Banning was in the Bataan Death March—which is described in painful detail—escaped and fought with the American and Philippine guerrillas in the jungles. Meanwhile, his family at home thought he was dead.
Finally, the last section follows Banning’s children and the impacts his crime had on him and everyone around them.
As I say often, I think most every book I finish reading is well-written—or I would have stopped reading it and never report it anyway. But, I also recognize that whether someone will like or not like a book is dependent on whether you like what the book talks about. A quick glance at reviews will show why most people don’t like the book (though I did).
Most importantly, race in rural Mississippi in that time period is a key element of the story. From separation of public facilities, living conditions, law enforcement treatment, and employment opportunities, the harsh reality of the Jim Crow era is depicted. But more difficult for readers, the story is told from the perspective of the white land owners, so their own perceptions of right and wrong are described. In my own opinion, Banning’s and his children’s blindness to their own casual racism is a key part of the tale, no matter how hard it is to read.
Secondly, the section in the Philippines feels disjointed and unnecessary to a lot of readers. The passages are quite brutal, but set up Banning as the war hero. What I think a lot of readers miss in these scenes, however, is the further depiction of Banning’s racism. He, of course, hates the Japanese and their cruelty, but he also is quite dismissive of the heroic Filipinos he fights beside. Almost none of them are named and he spends his time thinking of his fellow Americans.
And, finally, many readers dislike the ending (which I will not reveal for obvious reasons) and, most importantly, the children’s (now young adults) reactions to it. It is harsh and jarring and quite painful to read, but it also seems to fit the rest of the narrative of the novel.
In my opinion, the obliviousness of the main characters to their own racist feelings, the instilled belief that they are better than most in that regard, is powerful. They can’t even feel sympathy to the widow and children of the murder victim. Their casual sense of entitlement is damning. But rather than blatantly calling them out, Grisham let’s them tell their story from their own perspective.
With that background, I am glad I read it and find it quite worthwhile, but it certainly isn’t a book for everyone.
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