John Grisham's engrossing new coming-of-age novel should banish any notion that his talent is limited to writing legal thrillers. Set in the low, cotton-growing flatlands of northeastern Arkansas in 1952, A Painted House chronicles two months in the life of seven-year-old Luke Chandler. Before the season is over, Luke will have seen (and been dazzled by) his first naked girl, peeked through a window at a loud and painful childbirth and witnessed two murders. But he also will have learned about the depth of compassion especially his own.
Unlike many Southern novels, A Painted House is mercifully free of grotesque characters, grown men with baby names, dysfunctional families and racial politics. "There were no ethnic groups," Luke observes at a community baseball game, "no blacks or Jews or Asians, no permanent outsiders of any variety. We were all of Anglo-Irish stock, maybe a strain or two of German blood, and everybody farmed or sold to the farmers. Everybody was a Christian or claimed to be."
To help them harvest their cotton crop, the hard-pressed Chandlers hire a family of "hill people" and a truckload of Mexican migrants. The hill people pitch camp in the front yard of the Chandlers' weathered and initially unpainted home, while the Mexicans occupy the barn. Just across the river live the numbingly poor sharecroppers, the Latchers. Tumbled together, these factions teach the already somewhat cynical Luke almost more about humanity than he can assimilate.
Grisham makes good use of his own Arkansas childhood in spinning finely nuanced characters (such as Luke's mother) and pinpointing amusing cultural traits. Here's how he describes the inability of rural folk to bid each other a quick goodbye: "No one ever got in a hurry when it was time to go. The announcement was made that the hour was late, then repeated, and then someone made the first move to the car or truck amidst the first wave of farewells. Hands were shaken, hugs given, promises exchanged. Progress was made until the group got to the vehicle, at which time the entire procession came to a halt as someone remembered yet another quick story."
With 11 bestselling novels to his credit and more than 60 million copies of his books in print, Grisham takes a change-of-pace risk here. But, by every standard of good storytelling, he triumphs.
Edward Morris is a Nashville-based writer.