John Grisham shows his versatility as a writer in the story of a seven-year-old boy who is privy to adult secrets. The conflict Luke Chandler faces is the grist of Grisham's novel. Unlike the courtroom dramas that trademark earlier books, A PAINTED HOUSE takes place in rural Arkansas in 1952, where the setting is a family's cotton farm. An only child, Luke is introduced to two migrant groups, the hill people and the Mexicans. His childhood is turned upside down when they interact with the Chandler family.
The outsiders arrive in Black Oak to work in the cotton harvest for Luke's father and grandfather, who struggle to pay their bills. The hill people come from the mountains in the northern part of the state and are considered hillbillies. The low-class Spruills pitch a tent and set their camp in the Chandler front yard --- an unforgivable act, according to Luke.
By contrast, the Mexicans live in the barn. One of them, Cowboy, terrifies Luke when he shows off a switchblade and the intent to use it if necessary. Conflict erupts when Hank Spruill, a hulking giant of a young man, bullies the Mexicans. Hank antagonizes everyone he meets in the small town of Black Oak. Luke witnesses one brutal thrashing that Hank gives a local boy. The consequences of that encounter remain a dark secret the boy is forced to keep.
Grisham develops a suspenseful story, characteristic of his earlier books. A PAINTED HOUSE is a tale of social ambiguities inherent in small communities. On the one side, Luke's family is financially superior to the visiting clans. But he is made to feel inferior when the malicious Hank points out that the Chandlers' clapboard house is a gray, unpainted wood. Hank boasts that the Spruill residence in Eureka Springs is painted white.
Luke's love for baseball consumes him. He longs to play one day for the St. Louis Cardinals, his ticket out of the farming community. He saves his meager wages from picking cotton to buy a Cardinals jacket. However, Luke makes a choice based on friendship that will complicate his dream.
Grisham's words allow the reader to become one with his characters and their surroundings. Ordinary lives become complex with tiny twists of plot. His characters come alive on the page. One cares about the outcome of each side story in the entire piece. A PAINTED HOUSE is set apart from ordinary coming-of-age stories by Grisham's artful use of sensory details. One can hear a hissing, coiled snake, feel the chill blast of a tornado's fury and smell the stench of water-soaked cotton balls.
His use of minor characters, both onscreen and off-screen, is masterful. Reference to the absent Ricky Chandler is an insight into the Korean War and its effects on a rural society. Grisham uses detail to transport his audience into a quiet community of our recent American past. And a bucket of paint becomes a symbol for new beginnings.
--- Reviewed by Judy Gigstad
It is with complete understatement that I call John Grisham's latest novel a sharp departure from the legal thriller genre his name has become synonymous with. Inspired by events in Grisham's own childhood, A PAINTED HOUSE is the story of the Chandlers, a 1950s Arkansas farming family, as told through the eyes of seven-year-old Luke. While drama, tragedy, and injustice abound, there is not a lawyer or courtroom to be found in the entire narrative. Is this new, more literary Grisham to be taken seriously? Actually, yes.
The year is 1952, harvest season, and like other farmers in the area the Chandler family cannot harvest their cotton crop alone so they employ migrant farm workers from Mexico and the hills of Arkansas. It is not long before these people become part of the Chandler family and the larger farming community. Everyone, including little Luke, labors side by side, doing the backbreaking work required to pick 80 acres of cotton.
As the season progresses, their lives become intimately entwined. Despite anger, fear, and grueling work, some manage to fall in love and continue to hope. One of the few diversions from the rigors of farm life is the ritual weekend sojourn into Black Oak --- the highlight of an otherwise tedious week. It is in town that people fall in love, fight and come together with their neighbors to discuss the weather (a topic of utmost importance to farmers.)
Against a backdrop of sweltering heat, torrential rains, exhausting work, and flaring passions, Luke observes all that is going on around him and tries his best to understand the complicated circumstances in which adults find themselves. He struggles to understand his grandparents' devotion to the precarious world of farming and his mother's dream of one day living in "a painted house" (as opposed to a run-down farmhouse), far removed from the uncertain lifestyle that farmer's lead.
In this tale, Grisham paints a vivid portrait of not just farming life and the Chandlers, but of those who dream and the sacrifices they make to see those dreams reach fruition. Indeed, some of the images he brings to life will remain with the reader long after they have put A PAINTED HOUSE back on the shelf --- like that of young Luke picking row after row of cotton in the blistering sun with no end in sight, contrasted with the image of him playing baseball with the hired workers. Perhaps it's because I'm a city kid, unable to fathom a seven-year-old working in the fields for eight hours, that I find this book's imagery so compelling…though more than likely it's because Grisham's personal connection to the story aids him in making everything so felt and real. "Write what you know, " isn't that what they always say?
Grisham also does a wonderful job of developing his ancillary characters, from the proud and determined grandfather whose only hedonistic activity is listening to baseball (specifically the St. Louis Cardinals), to Tally, a young itinerant worker who risks everything to escape a life she believes holds no promise.
For those Grisham devotees hesitant to read to book that does not revolve around the nefarious doings of lawyers and clients, I suggest you give A PAINTED HOUSE a try. For those who generally hate Grisham and his empire of guilty pleaures, I still suggest you give A PAINTED HOUSE a try. Far less formulaic than, say, THE CLIENT or THE CHAMBER, Grisham's first attempt at serious, literary fiction --- while still a long way away from taking home the Pulitzer --- may just surprise you.
--- Reviewed by Katie Brennan
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad and Katie Brennan on December 26, 2001
A Painted House