- Virginia Johnson
Rural 1950s Arkansas is the setting for John Grisham’s Southern thriller, A Painted House. It’s the beginning of a summer full of sweltering days, acres of cotton to pick, dangerous desire, and deadly secrets to keep. This season—at its start, the same as every other—finds the Chandler family on the road in their dusty pick-up looking for migrant workers to hire. Young Lucas is certain from what he has observed in his short life that once the season’s work is done, his family will go back to its quiet ways, sitting through another winter, readying for another spring planting with Grandpa, “Pappy” Chandler, heading the household.
Lucas’ family has worked the land for generations, and this summer’s batches of migrant help—Mexicans and hill people—will work alongside them to bring in the crop before the weather destroys their chance to make a little profit on the farm or at least get further out of debt. Lucas expects the workers to come stay for a few months, do their assigned work, and then go their way—never leaving a lasting impression on his family and their way of life.
The Chandlers are not rich by any means, but they know they are far better off than the neighboring sharecropper families, and they like their privacy and their superior position in the community. So when the hill folk family they hire sets up their tents right next to the Chandlers’ front door, they know it’s going to be a difficult summer. And, when the biggest of that bunch proves to have an evil temper and a beautiful, wayward sister, the situation gets much more dangerous, particularly when she catches the eye of a handsome, steely-eyed Mexican worker nicknamed Cowboy.
The author grew up in Arkansas and it’s this setting—not his usual courtroom dramas—that he used in A Painted House. Its title refers to another conflict quietly brewing within the Chandlers’ own household as the younger generation looks at the possibility of a life outside the hardscrabble farmland where houses are rarely painted.
Grisham portrays the South as a place of honest work, inner strength, and humorous encounters with a newly-acquired relative from Yankee Land, as they call it. Lucas' musings on the yearly baseball rivalry between the Baptists and the Methodists—a contest not complete without platters of fried chicken and buckets of homemade ice cream—are the stuff of happy memories.
Yet, if summer's sweetness were all Grisham portrayed, this would be a very different book. His characters’ passions, brutalities, dark secrets, and prejudices change it into a modern-day Southern gothic to be enjoyed, albeit as a much lighter read, alongside its more famous siblings of the same genre, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sound and the Fury.