Analysis of ‘A Painted House’, by John Grisham:
John Grisham, a writer of popular fiction that topped bestseller charts regularly, was born in Arkansas. There was never much money in the family because of which they moved about quite a lot looking for work and better opportunities. His mother lacked formal education but that did not prevent her from encouraging her son to go to college. Before he finally graduated, he worked at odd jobs. It was after he qualified as a lawyer that his writing career took off.
Relevance of the Title
The title refers to the Chandler family home which had never been painted showing their inferior social status. One day, Chandler makes the discovery that someone has been quietly painting the weather-beaten clapboards white. Luke takes it upon himself to complete the job with help from his parents and the migrant Mexicans they employ on the farm.
Childhood Innocence and Its Loss
Though he had to work as hard as an adult, seven year old Luke leads an idyllic life in the farm surrounded by the love of his family. Reality steps in when he witnesses a violent fight between the Hank Spruill and the Sisco boys which ends in the death of one of the younger Siscos. Luke is named a “friendly witness” by Hank Spruill. Luke knows that Hank is fully capable of harming him and he lives in fear. Soon after, Luke sees Hank being killed by one of the Mexican boys and his body thrown in the river. The Mexican threatens to kill his mother if Luke lets on what has happened. Luke also learns that Uncle Ricky whom he adores may have fathered a child with one of the poverty stricken Latcher girls.
Luke is the main protagonist of the novel. We see the family, the neighbors, the Hill people who are hired to do temporary work and the brash Mexicans through Luke’s eyes. Though just seven years old, he does an adult’s share of cotton picking. When the story starts, Luke is a child with his innocence intact. He leads an idyllic existence where that are only predictable changes. But as the story progresses, his innocence lies in tatters. The violent ways of the migrant laborers and interracial rivalry cut deep into his mind. There are too many secrets for young Luke to carry. He witnesses young Hank beating up the Sisco boy and Hank being killed by the cowboy and the body thrown into the river. He is not able to talk about any of these as he is threatened with more violence. Luke grows up when he learns that his Uncle Ricky is father of Libby’s child. Luke knows that one day they will have to leave the farm behind and move on to the cities. It is just that the flood hastens that event.
He is like many of the patriarchs of Southern Gothic novels – hardworking, friendly, morally upright, wedded to the land and physically strong. He is a WWI veteran who is knowledgeable about baseball. The most important thing for him is a good harvest so that the family can get out of debt a little more.
The story unfolds with seven year old Luke and his grandfather Pappy Chandler searching for migrant workers to help them pick the cotton which getting ready for harvest. They hire the Spruills, a family from the hills and some migrant Mexican workers. Though initially they are happy with the temporary labor, things begin to get complicated for Luke. First he is a witness to a violent fight between the disorderly Sisco boys and Hank Spruill leading to the death of the youngest Sisco boy. Hank names Luke as a witness to the fight. Luke speaks supporting Hank but only because he is scared of Hank. Soon after he sees Hank being killed by Cowboy, one of the Mexican youngsters and Hank’s body being thrown into the river. Here too Luke has to remain a mute witness as Cowboy threatens to kill Luke’s mother if he speaks up.
In between these traumatic happenings, the author puts in descriptions of life in the farm and the quiet security which Luke enjoys surrounded by his family. All of them are devoted to baseball and it is Luke’s cherished desire to play for his favorite team, the Cardinals. Outside in the town, there are events like the carnival, the town picnic and the arrival of television to stir things up.
The unusually hot summer turns into rain. The cotton is still out there getting ruined. The Chandler family realizes that life in the farm will not help pay their debts. Luke and his parents decide to move North to St. Louis or maybe to Chicago where they can find work in the automobile factories.
1. “It happened in a flash and nobody saw it but me.”
Adolescence comes to Luke really fast. He is not beyond seven years of age but is already noticing pretty girls in the neighborhood even if they are way beyond him in age. Here he notices the chemistry that sparks between Cowboy and Tally. Tally has been flirting with little Luke, smiling at him in an enticing way but now he sees her smiling at Cowboy who is much closer to her in age. Cowboy is no callow school boy but a man who is ready for the rough and tumble of vagrant life.
2. “Don’t worry i thought to myself, dont worry.”
There is much on Luke’s mind these days. He sees things that a boy of seven cannot cope with. He is
scared to share the secrets with his family as he is terrified of the violent Hank and Cowboy who are both capable of murder. Here he tries pacifying himself.
3. ” Sitting around the kitchen table , laughing and writing and listening to the game, there was not a single doubt that Ricky would soon be home.”
Uncle Ricky is Luke’s nineteen year old uncle. Luke wants to grow up to be like him. He is good at baseball. At the moment he is with the US army, fighting in Korea. No one knows for certain whether Rick will come back alive but they all pretend he will.
4. “Her eyes were closed, and a grin was slowly forming at the corners of her mouth.”
Luke’s mom hated the work in the cotton fields; the uncertainty of the weather, the back breaking work and meager profit were enough to make her long for the city with modern conveniences. Now that they are finally leaving, she is happy.