John Grisham: The Reckoning

John Grisham Reckoning Square

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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7 Comments

  1. Jean Burkhardt on February 6, 2019 at 1:55 pm

    I like this author and I also love to read novels that take place in the past. It gives me a glimpse into a time before I was born and a murder book is another one of my favorite type of book! I will read this for sure!

  2. CHARLOTTE A MCRANIE on February 7, 2019 at 6:49 pm

    Having grown up in the Deep South, I will definitely read this book. John Grisham did a great job with his other books depicting the reality of racism in the South. The reality of what he depicts can and should make folks uncomfortable.

  3. BEVERLY on May 28, 2020 at 5:36 pm

    He died in the electric chair Old sparky. He was Not hanged. That was told very colorfully. And scary. He was loved by people of color. He was loved by all. What book did you read ????

    • D.K. Wall on May 28, 2020 at 7:32 pm

      Thank you for your comment.

      If you’ll go back and read my comments, you will note that the person hanged is the person the story is based on, per John Grisham’s author note and subsequent interviews. He claims to have heard the story 30 years before writing the novel and “stealing it” (his words—not mine) to create the fictional The Reckoning. You are absolutely correct the person in the novel is executed by the electric chair.

      And, yes, as I said in my review, the story is heavily about racism. Grisham says so. That’s uncomfortable for many people to deal with, but he approaches it in a very straight forward way in this (and other) novels.

  4. Minjoo on July 16, 2020 at 9:48 am

    Hi D.K Wall, I really liked your review and agree with your ideas. I have chosen to write my extended essay on this book (It is a 4000-word essay which we have to do in the IB program), and would like to ask for some help if possible as it seems you are quite knowledgeable. I am thinking of writing an essay to do with Grisham’s critique on the normalization of racism during this period (You also mentioned part of this here) or maybe about the “White critique of racism”, where I will go into things you mentioned here such as the “obliviousness of the main characters to their own racist feelings”. I am really interested in this book, and would really like to learn more.

    Could you please elaborate and give some examples on some of these moments of this “casual racism” by the bannings, or “obliviousness of the main characters to their own racist feelings”, which may be significant or helpful to strengthen my essay? Also, if you have any other ideas regarding the racism in the book in which I can write about, I would greatly appreciate it!

    • D.K. Wall on July 17, 2020 at 8:46 am

      A couple of references for you to consider (and I highly recommend Googling “John Grisham Racism” to find other thoughts of his).

      First, here is a BBC interview with a Grisham strictly on the subject: https://www.bbc.com/news/av/entertainment-arts-25033668/john-grisham-we-are-all-racists

      An article about the book and racism from The Chicago Tribune – https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/ct-books-the-reckoning-john-grisham-review-20181018-story.html

      A radio interview – https://wamu.org/story/18/11/06/john-grisham-on-30-years-of-legal-thrillers/

      As for some examples, think about Banning’s wife’s discovery of the “village” on his farm where the black families live. Re-read that section from Banning’s POV. Then from his wife’s. And then, finally, from the residents. You could simply focus on that scene and the subsequent discussion among lawyers about how he treats the people who live there. Banning, because he is better than his neighbors, can’t see his own faults.

      • Minjoo on July 17, 2020 at 11:24 am

        Hi, thank you for the reply! The sources you linked me were very helpful. One question though, I have re-read the part about Liza’s discovery of the village, but do not see the significance of why you asked me to read it in the perspectives of Liza, Pete, and the residents. Liza’s part I understand, she is appalled in the living standard of these people. However, I don’t really see Pete’s significance on this…. Do you mean his ignorance in acting as if the state at which the black people are living is acceptable? And I tried to read it from the residents perspective, but cannot think of the meaning behind the children “refusing to speak when Liza spoke to them” or “The mothers nodded and smiled as they herded the children back inside”. These were one of the only parts where the villagers interact with Liza, so I don’t really understand what you want me to see here… Any clarification would be really nice!

        Also, the only thing I could find about “subsequent discussion among lawyers about how he treats the people who live there” is the part where McLeish and his lawyer negotiate with Joel and Wilbanks about how much they have to pay, but don’t see anything about “how he treats the people who live there”… If you could also tell me which pages and what specifically I’m looking at, that would also be very helpful.

        I am still struggling quite a bit on 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” part, and do not see a relationship between “the blindness of the banning’s own casual racism” to the scene where Liza discovers the village in the Banning’s farm…could you please explain it to me? Also, thank you again, you are being really helpful :))

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