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[717] Sycamore Row – John Grisham

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” Herschel and Ramona and their families glared with hatred across the aisle at the group of blacks, who eagerly and somewhat smugly returned the looks. Their girl Lettie had been chosen to receive the money, and they were there to fight for her. But the money belonged to the Hubbards. Seth had been out of his mind. ” (Ch.12, p.156)

When a reclusive timber tycoon hangs himself from a sycamore on the edge of his estate, his handwritten will, which leaves the bulk of his fortune not to his two adult children and grandchildren but to his black housekeeper, induces a fierce legal brawl. Knowing the case will be a real sticky matter, Seth Hubbard had selected a young attorney named Jake Brigance who, three years earlier, had secured the acquittal of a black man accused of murder for killing the racists who raped his daughter, to handle his case.

Everything is about race in Mississippi . . . A simple black woman on the verge of inheritng what might be the largest fortune this county has ever seen, and the decision rests with a jury that’s predominantly white. (Ch.10, p.128)

Down with lung cancer and had just weeks to live, Seth Hubbard sent his new revised will, which will cut off his children altogether, to Brigance, instructing him to defend it “to the bitter end.” He knew it would scandalize the whole community, which, even in 1989, could not abide the idea of a black woman inheriting a fortune. But it’s also natural that the jury will take a dim view in the transfer of wealth outside the family, let alone when Seth Hubbard was very sick. A more conventional will, which rewards the Hubbard children and excludes Lettie Lang, has predated the handwritten one. Its existence raises the questions about Hubbard’s testamentary capacity: was he out of it on drugs? Had he been unduly influenced by Lettie? Hubbard was such an enigma that inferring any kind of motive is tricky. It’s Brigance’s job to advocate in favor of the last will and to follow its terms. As investigation on both sides of the trail dig deeper into the past, neither of them is prepared for the true reason behind the suicide and the change of will.

The bigger picture of Sycamore Row is that law is indistinguishable from the history of race in the South. In this novel, the law burdens us with secrets that must be revealed, but the most brutal acts can be balanced by an unexpected act of salvation. Grisham portrays racism as something poignantly inveterate and deeply rooted in our perception. This is a multi-layered legal thriller that evolves and branches off to new direction until the end. The courtroom drama proceeds at a terrific pace, from the gathering of information to selecting jurors. The real drama evolves as Brigance solves the mystery of what Seth Hubbard carefully orchestrated his suicide and bequeathed all his fortune to a black housekeeper who had taken care for him the last three years. What unfolds is how the wrongful acts of the past have continued to haunt and reign over the heart of the present. Grisham leads the reader through the intricacies of the probate process and a brilliant courtroom challenge filled with legal nuances.

642 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

2 Responses

  1. I read this book last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. There was real satisfaction watching the family members get their “comeuppance”. It is a good story and the ending is powerful.

  2. […] Sycamore Row by John Grisham. The bigger picture is that law is indistinguishable from the history of race in the South. In this novel, the law burdens us with secrets that must be revealed, but the most brutal acts can be balanced by an unexpected act of salvation. Grisham portrays racism as something poignantly inveterate and deeply rooted in our perception. This is a multi-layered legal thriller that evolves and branches off to new direction until the end. […]

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