Sycamore Row (Grisham)

Sycamore Row 
John Grisham, 2013
Knopf Doubleday
464 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385537131

John Grisham's A Time to Kill is one of the most popular novels of our time. Now we return to that famous courthouse in Clanton as Jake Brigance once again finds himself embroiled in a fiercely controversial trial-a trial that will expose old racial tensions and force Ford County to confront its tortured history.

Seth Hubbard is a wealthy man dying of lung cancer. He trusts no one. Before he hangs himself from a sycamore tree, Hubbard leaves a new, handwritten, will. It is an act that drags his adult children, his black maid, and Jake into a conflict as riveting and dramatic as the murder trial that made Brigance one of Ford County's most notorious citizens, just three years earlier.

The second will raises far more questions than it answers. Why would Hubbard leave nearly all of his fortune to his maid? Had chemotherapy and painkillers affected his ability to think clearly? And what does it all have to do with a piece of land once known as Sycamore Row?

In Sycamore Row, John Grisham returns to the setting and the compelling characters that first established him as America's favorite storyteller. Here, in his most assured and thrilling novel yet, is a powerful testament to the fact that Grisham remains the master of the legal thriller, nearly twenty-five years after the publication of A Time to Kill. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—February 8, 1955
Where—Jonesboro, Arkansas, USA
Education—B.S., Mississippi State; J.D., University of Mississippi
Currently—lives in Oxford, Mississippi and Albermarle, Virginia

John Ray Grisham, Jr. is an American lawyer, politician, and author, best known for his popular legal thrillers. He has written more than 25 novels, a short story collection (Ford County), two works of nonfiction, and a children's series.

Grisham's first bestseller was The Firm. Released in 1991, it sold more than seven million copies. The book was later adapted into a feature film, of the same name starring Tom Cruise in 1993, and a TV series in 2012 which "continues the story of attorney Mitchell McDeere and his family 10 years after the events of the film and novel." Eight of his other novels have also been adapted into films: The Chamber, The Client, A Painted House, The Pelican Brief, Skipping Christmas, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury, and his first novel, A Time to Kill. His books have been translated into 29 languages and published worldwide.

As of 2008, his books had sold over 250 million copies worldwide. Grisham is one of only three authors to sell two million copies on a first printing; the others are Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling.

Early life and education
Grisham, the second oldest of five siblings, was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Wanda Skidmore Grisham and John Grisham. His father was a construction worker and cotton farmer; his mother a homemaker. When Grisham was four years old, his family started traveling around the South, until they finally settled in Southaven in DeSoto County, Mississippi. As a child, Grisham wanted to be a baseball player. neither of his parents had advanced education, he was encouraged to read and prepare for college.

As a teenager, Grisham worked for a nursery watering bushes for $1.00 an hour. He was soon promoted to a fence crew for $1.50 an hour. At 16, Grisham took a job with a plumbing contractor. Through a contact of his father, he managed to find work on a highway asphalt crew in Mississippi at the age of 17.

It was during this time that an unfortunate incident made him think more seriously about college. A fight broke out among the crew with gunfire, and Grisham ran to the restroom for safety. He did not come out until after the police had "hauled away rednecks." He hitchhiked home and started thinking about college.

His next work was in retail, as a salesclerk in a department store men's underwear section, which he described as "humiliating." He decided to quit but stayed when he was offered a raise. He was given another raise after asking to be transferred to toys and then to appliances. A confrontation with a company spy posing as a customer convinced him to leave the store. By this time, Grisham was halfway through college.

He went to the Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, Mississippi and later attended Delta State University in Cleveland. Grisham drifted so much during his time at the college that he changed colleges three times before completing a degree. He graduated from Mississippi State University in 1977, receiving a BS degree in accounting.

He later enrolled in the University of Mississippi School of Law planning to become a tax lawyer. But he was soon overcome by "the complexity and lunacy" of it. He decided to return to his hometown as a trial lawyer, but his interest shifted to general civil litigation. He graduated in 1983 with a JD degree.

Law and politics
Grisham practiced law for about a decade and also won election as a Democrat in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1983 to 1990 at an annual salary of $8,000. By his second term at the Mississippi state legislature, he was the vice-chairman of the Apportionment and Elections Committee and a member of several other committees.

With the success of his second book The Firm, published in 1991, Grisham gave up practicing law. He returned briefly in 1996 to fight for the family of a railroad worker who had been killed on the job. It was a commitment made to the family before leaving law to become a full-time writer. Grisham successfully argued his clients' case, earning them a jury award of $683,500—the biggest verdict of his career.

Grisham said that, sometime in the mid-1980s, he had been hanging around the court one day when he overheard a 12-year-old girl telling the jury how she been beaten and raped. Her story intrigued Grisham, so he began to watch the trial, noting how members of the jury wept during her testimony. It was then, Grisham later wrote in the New York Times, that a story was born. Musing over "what would have happened if the girl's father had murdered her assailants," Grisham took three years to complete his first book, A Time to Kill.

Finding a publisher was not easy. The book was rejected by 28 publishers before Wynwood Press, an unknown publisher, agreed to give it a modest 5,000-copy printing. It was published in June 1989. The day after Grisham completed A Time to Kill, he began work on his second novel, the story of an ambitious young attorney "lured to an apparently perfect law firm that was not what it appeared." The Firm remained on the the New York Times' bestseller list for 47 weeks and became the bestselling novel of 1991.

Beginning with A Painted House in 2001, the author broadened his focus from law to the more general rural South, but continued to write legal thrillers. He has also written sports fiction and comedy fiction.

In 2005, Grisham received the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. The award is presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust.

In 2010, Grisham started writing legal thrillers for children 9-12 years old. The books featured Theodore Boone, a 13-year-old boy, who gives his classmates legal advice—everything from rescuing impounded dogs to helping their parents prevent their house from being repossessed. His daughter, Shea, inspired him to write the Boone series.

Marriage and family
Grisham married Renee Jones in 1981, and the couple have two grown children together, Shea and Ty. The family spends their time in their Victorian home on a farm outside Oxford, Mississippi, and their other home near Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Innocence Project
Grisham is a member of the Board of Directors of The Innocence Project, which campaigns to free unjustly convicted people on the basis of DNA evidence. The Innocence Project argues that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events but instead arise from systemic defects. Grisham has testified before Congress on behalf of the Project and appeared on Dateline on NBC, Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, and other programs. He also wrote for the New York Times in 2013 about an unjustly held prisoner at Guantanamo.

Libel suit
In 2007, former legal officials from Oklahoma filed a civil suit for libel against Grisham and two other authors. They claimed that Grisham and the others critical of Peterson and his prosecution of murder cases conspired to commit libel and generate publicity for themselves by portraying the plaintiffs in a false light and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. Grisham was named due to his publication of the non-fiction book, The Innocent Man. He examined the faults in the investigation and trial of defendants in the murder of a cocktail waitress in Ada, Oklahoma, and the exoneration by DNA evidence more than 12 years later of wrongfully convicted defendants Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz. The judge dismissed the libel case after a year, saying, "The wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz must be discussed openly and with great vigor."

The Mississippi State University Libraries maintains the John Grisham Room, an archive containing materials related to his writings and to his tenure as Mississippi State Representative.

Grisham has a lifelong passion for baseball demonstrated partly by his support of Little League activities in both Oxford, Mississippi, and Charlottesville, Virginia. He wrote the original screenplay for and produced the 2004 baseball movie Mickey, starring Harry Connick, Jr. He remains a fan of Mississippi State University's baseball team and wrote about his ties to the university and the Left Field Lounge in the introduction for the book Dudy Noble Field: A Celebration of MSU Baseball.

In an October 2006 interview on the Charlie Rose Show, Grisham stated that he usually takes only six months to write a book and that his favorite author is John le Carre. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/6/2013.)

Book Reviews
One of [Grisham's] finest.... Sycamore Row is a true literary event—the sequel, nearly a quarter-century later, to A Time to Kill, Grisham’s first and perhaps best-regarded novel.... I believe these two books about Clanton [Mississippi] will now be read back to back—and, standing together, at last dispel the long shadow of Harper Lee.
Charlie Rubin - New York Times Book Review

Remember A Time To Kill's Jake Brigance? He's back, trying to make sure that justice is served in Ford County, MS, even as one small town's trial of the century seems set to pull folks apart. Just starting to buzz—one wishes that there were more plot details—but the return of Jack Brigance will set readers on fire.
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
The following Discussion Questions were developed by MaryAnne Johnson of The Crack Spine Book Club. She has graciously offered to share them with LitLovers. Thank you MaryAnne!

1. We know the setting of Sycamore Row is Clanton, Mississippi, 3 years after Carl Lee Bailey is found innocent in the murder of the two men who have raped his daughter. The year is 1989. If you read or saw the novel/movie, have race relations among the townspeople changed or remain the same in this novel. Examples?

2. Jake Brigance, (Of course, all we can picture is Mathew Mc Conaughy!) young and smart, has gained a great measure of respectability among the townspeople for his defense of Carl Lee. In this novel, what qualities and characteristics does Jake have that make him a memorable and noteworthy character, resident of Clanton, and lawyer? Examples?

3. In Sycamore Row, there are many references to all that Jake and his wife Carla have lost in his defense of Hailey. Do these issues make Jake more heroic or weaker in this novel? How do these issues resolve themselves in this novel?

4. What would be the stylistic purpose for Chapter One to graphically portray the suicide of Seth Hubbard?

5. Seth Hubbard’s character is both dark and light, good yet flawed. What qualities and examples represent the good and the light? What qualities and examples represent a troubled and flawed man?

6. What are the multiple factors that relate to the contesting of the will/estate by Hubbard’s children as well as a battleground for legal discussion? Explain.

7. What is your impression of the character and personality of the black maid, Lettie Lang? What is her past and background as revealed in the early chapters? How does she comport herself at the beginning of the novel, in the presence of Seth’s children, upon hearing of Seth’s will, and concerning her husband?

8. What is Lettie’s true identity as revealed through Charlie Pardue, Boaz Rinds, and the powerful investigative talents of her own daughter Portia?

9. The theme of avarice and greed threads its way through the novel—and most shockingly from those who have no familial rights—the lawyers! Almost 45% of the novel focuses on the scavengers-- lawyers, investigators, and witnesses, who feed on the flesh of money made from this trial. What impressions and examples can you use to support this idea? Is this an accurate portrayal of legal proceedings?

10. What is the personality of the Honorable Judge Atlee? What is your impression of his personal style as well as his conduction of his legal responsibilities? Is he on Jake’s side or is there a darker undercurrent to his nature? How is his power and authority asserted in the final resolution of the case?

11. Suspense builds in the novel regarding Seth’s younger brother Ancil, who is also named in the will. What details are revealed and uncovered concerning Ancil’s background and history? What did Ancil see…and how did this traumatic event alter his personality? What do we learn when he is discovered in a hospital in Juneau, Alaska?

12. What was John Grisham’s literary intent in holding Ancil’s story until the last chapters?

13. Who is Sylvester Rinds and how did he come to own 80 acres of land that was then deeded to Cleon Hubbard by Sylvester Rinds wife? How did the land come to Seth Hubbard?

14. One despicable character in the novel is Lettie’s husband, Simeon Lang. Describe his personality and what role he plays in the tragic events of the novel.

15. There are so many colorful characters in the novel who either directly or indirectly affect the outcome of events such as Portia, Lucien Wilbanks, Harry Lee Rex, Ozzie, Dumas Lee, Wade Lanier, Quince Lundy, Charlie Pardue, Boaz Rinds, etc, etc…….What do these characters add to the novel’s story and uniqueness?

16. What legal regulatory errors occur in the trial (allowed by Judge Atlee) that lead to the real possibility of an appeal and a retrial of the case?

17. Why is the case resolved before an appeal can be requested? How is the case resolved?

18. Are you satisfied with the reason/s Seth Hubbard changed his will and left his estate to Lettie? Or do you find the idea contestable?

19. Sometimes a reader imagines a different resolution of ending to a major bone of contention in a novel. Could John Grisham have created a tighter, more familial connection between Seth and Lettie that would have enhanced the ending and solution of the will?

20. In the tradition of Southern literature, mainly William Faulkner, the novel is based on these multiple characters who weave in and out of the plot like fireflies. John Grisham, like Faulkner, is trying to establish a community of townsfolk to relate to in future novels. Is this literary device effective?

(Questions developed by MaryAnne Johnson of The Crack Spine Book Club. Please feel free to use them online with a link to LitLovers. Thank you.)

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