Premise: Luke Chandler is a seven year old boy growing up on a field that he and his parents and grandparents rent and farm cotton. The house they live in has never been painted because they can’t afford it. As they pick cotton, they battle weather, finding help, getting to the mill, along with other things that threaten their crops and their family. Luke sees things during this season that change his life as his innocence is challenged and he learns more than a seven year old should.
Themes: A Painted House is a coming of age story, where Luke has experiences that change how he sees the world, from meeting an older girl to death to learning what hard work really is. Luke begins the story a seven year old kid who hasn’t seen much of the world outside the safety of his small house, but when he is called upon to help with the harvest he learns the challenges his family faces to survive. The hill people and the Mexicans they hire to come help them each year only brings more troubles this year when they set up camp right in the middle of Luke’s baseball diamond. One of the hill people is a bully who pick fights in town, one of which turns fatal, and Luke is caught as a witness to it, which leaves Luke with the dilemma of keeping the secret or facing the bully himself.
We also learn about the significance of family as generations of Chandlers work together to support their family. The family works side by side in the fields, they listen to baseball games on the radio and imagine they are there at the ballpark together, and Luke’s grandfather and father do their best to pass on the importance of working hard and doing the right thing.
Pros: This was the first John Grisham book I have read, and to start with one of his that isn’t a legal thriller won’t necessarily give me a good feel for his mastery of the genre. What A Painted House did let me know is that he is a good writer. His characters are full of substance and the struggles of a sharecropper in Arkansas come to life so much that they could be those of real farmers during the 1950s.
Cons: While there isn’t much plot beyond “kid grows up in poor Southern sharecropper family”, the characters are fairly vivid. This could have used a little more substance to the story itself, but it was still enjoyable.
Recommendations: For fans of his other books, this may be a good change while still enjoying Grisham’s writing. On the other hand, it could be a disappointment that it isn’t a legal thriller if that is what a reader is expecting. If anything, this book was enough to make me want to try some of Grisham’s other works that he is more well known for, and while I have heard this is a somewhat semi-autobiographical novel, expanding outside his mastery of the legal thriller may have been what he was going for. Grisham knows how to tell a story, so I say give this one a try.