Summary (Amazon): The hill people and the Mexicans arrived on the same day. It was a Wednesday, early in September 1952. The Cardinals were five games behind the Dodgers with three weeks to go, and the season looked hopeless. The cotton, however, was waist-high to my father, over my head, and he and my grandfather could be heard before supper whispering words that were seldom heard. It could be a “good crop.”
Thus begins the new novel from John Grisham, a story inspired by his own childhood in rural Arkansas. The narrator is a farm boy named Luke Chandler, age seven, who lives in the cotton fields with his parents and grandparents in a little house that’s never been painted. The Chandlers farm eighty acres that they rent, not own, and when the cotton is ready they hire a truckload of Mexicans and a family from the Ozarks to help harvest it.
For six weeks they pick cotton, battling the heat, the rain, the fatigue, and, sometimes, each other. As the weeks pass Luke sees and hears things no seven-year-old could possibly be prepared for, and finds himself keeping secrets that not only threaten the crop but will change the lives of the Chandlers forever.
A Painted House is a moving story of one boy’s journey from innocence to experience.
My Review (Spoilers!!):
Executive Summary: dull
John Grisham was our “Pick an Author” category this year. The idea is to pick an author who has a plethora of books and then everyone in book club can choose one and read it. I had actually never read any of John Grisham’s works and as he is an influential American author, I was excited to have some motivation to read something of his. I would have chosen The Firm as I feel like that is his best novel, however, I found this book on our book shelf and decided to read it instead. (Neither my husband nor I knows where this book came from, but I suspect it may have been purchased by someone in the airport at some time.)
The story is narrated by Luke, a seven year old boy who lives on a cotton farm in rural Arkansas (outside of Black Oak) with his parents and grandparents. His uncle Ricky is in Korea for the war. It’s 1952.
It’s cotton picking season, so the farmers hire “hill people” from the Ozarks and Mexicans to help pick. Luke’s family gets a self-entitled hill family called the Spruills. Within the Spruills is a mother, father, a beautiful girl named Tally who is 17, a boy named Trot who has one limp arm, a giant behemoth of a man called Hank, and two other boys of no real concern. It’s basically a circus act wrapped up in a bunch of hillbillies. They also get a group of 10 Mexicans of whom the reader only knows two–the leader, Miguel, and a rough looking one called Cowboy. The Spruills start off on the wrong foot with Luke because a) they set up their camp in the front yard, right on home plate of his baseball field, and b) they insult the fact that Luke’s family’s house isn’t painted. (thus the name of the book)
The book proceeds with picking cotton during the week and going to town on Saturdays. And listening to the St. Louis Cardinals on the radio during the evenings. Everything is going pretty regularly until one trip to town, a rough group of local boys, the Siscos, pick a fight with one of the hill people. Hank steps in to defend the hill person (and mostly just because he loves picking fights), he kills the one Sisco kid. Luke and his friend are there to witness it.
When the town cop comes poking about asking questions, Hank says that Luke witnessed the fight and Luke lies to say that Hank was simply defending himself 3-1 against the Siscos, when in reality it was more of a brutal attack as Hank is very unstable.
As the summer rolls on and Luke helps his mother tend her garden, they begin to notice small sections of their house are painted. They eventually realize that Trot is painting their house while the others are out picking cotton, and that the sister, Tally, is paying for the paint with her cotton money.
One summer evening, a baseball game begins on the farm. It turns out that Cowboy is quite a good pitcher, and he delights in striking out Hank, who becomes furious and attacks him. Cowboy pulls out a switchblade, and the fight is over…for now. The Mexicans continue to complain about someone keeping them up all night by throwing dirt clods at their window, and everyone assumes it is Hank. However, no one wants to do anything about it because Hank is big and scary and is good at picking cotton.
Meanwhile, like every small town, there is gossip happening at the neighboring farm. Apparently the young girl who lives there is pregnant and won’t say who the father is. Luke’s mother and grandmother periodically drop in to provide vegetables and to try to get gossip to provide to the rest of the town. When the baby is coming, the two women go over to the neighbors to provide support, and Luke and Tally sneakily watch from outside. In the morning, one of the girl’s brothers comes over to their house and announces that the baby is Ricky’s. Everyone is floored and realizes that they are now unable to gossip about this occurrence because it will shame their own family as well. (Serves them right)
The clodding of the Mexican’s house continues, and coupled with the ceaseless rains, Pappy decides that it’s time that Hank goes home. The Spruills, who seem exhausted by having to constantly defend him, agree and send him to hitchhike his way home. However, on the way, Cowboy follows Hank and kills him, dumping his body in the river. And of course Luke also is there to see this. So as a 7 year old in a sleepy farm town, he has now witnessed two murders. OK. Cowboy knew he was there and threatens Luke that if he ever says a peep, Cowboy will murder Luke’s mother.
The rain keeps falling and the river is starting to flood. The family awakens one day to find the truck gone and both Tally and Cowboy are missing. They locate the sheriff eventually and then track down the truck at the train station. They have filled the truck with gasoline. Tally left a note for her family that tells them that she and Cowboy are heading north and are going to get married. The Spruills head home to the Ozarks.
Luke’s father buys some additional paint to finish the job that Trot had started. Luke takes on the task with a seven year old’s vigor. That is he works hard at it but is in no way upset when the Mexicans take over the task! Eventually the flooding becomes so bad that the Mexicans leave to go to a different farm that has higher land. Luke’s mother has confided to him that they are planning on heading to Flint so his dad can work at the Buick factory.
The rains continue and the neighbor appears. His home is flooded, and with tears in his eyes, he begs for a place to stay. They rescue the family with a row boat and set them up in the barn. They continue to paint the house with what little money is left.
Before they leave, Luke’s mother tells him that she is having another baby. He confides to her that he and Tally witnessed Libby’s birth. On one final trip into town, he confesses to his Pappy what happened with Hank and Cowboy. Pappy says it will be their secret. Luke and his parents head to Jonesboro to catch the train with the question of whether they will ever return to live in Arkansas.
Verdict: 3 Stars
The book was 450+ pages, and not a whole lot happened during it. Luckily Grisham is a good writer so the story wasn’t terrible, but it was really just not my style. I also thought it was a little egregious that two murders were written into a small town that the same small child happened to see. I’m in my thirties and have lived in small towns and big cities and have never been witness to one, let alone two, murders. I will try to go back at some point and read one of Grisham’s more typical novels. I think I would like those more.