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Prison compound No. 1, Angola, Louisiana, July 1934. Photo by Alan Lomax, from Library of Congress collection.
A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for nearly three decades, Sister Helen Prejean has dedicated her life to prison ministry, particularly with inmates convicted of capital crimes. Her 1994 book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States was a New York Times bestseller and has since been made into both a feature film and an opera. In this interview excerpt, Prejean comments on the universality of Ernest J. Gaine's A Lesson Before Dying, which centers on the death row relationship of a local teacher and a young man who may have been unjustly been condemend to die.
This story is about redemption. Double redemption of a black man who was sentenced to death and called a hog at his trial and learned how to die as a man and the teacher who tried to help him and who learned how to walk as a man in his life too. . . .It?s really a story about human freedom and choice up against great extremity and great injustice and working creatively within it. And that?s what really appeals. Also that we see that humanness in everyone: We see the humanness in Grant, we see the humanness in Jefferson, we see the humanness in Ms. Emma and in Aunt Lou and everybody. So that I think is what touches us in the story.
To learn more about Ernest J. Gaines and A Lesson Before Dying, take a look at The Big Read educational resources for the novel, including a short documentary film.