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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
by John Grisham
Reviewed by David Bruce Murray
The most annoying aspect of The Last Juror by top selling author John Grisham is the dust jacket synopsis. Don't read it! It contains a major plot spoiler. Fans who prefer Grisham's courtroom dramas probably will not care for this book. It isn't a total departure like A Painted House or Bleachers, but the focal character is a newspaper owner rather than a lawyer and the time period spans years rather than months. Lawyers and courtrooms are present, but the key trial in The Last Juror takes place in the first third of the novel rather than the last. The outcome of the trial is never in doubt (thanks in no small part to the dust jacket synopsis).
There is a lot to like about The Last Juror. This book is more of a whodunit type mystery than a legal saga. Fans of Grisham’s A Time To Kill should enjoy returning to the town of Clanton, Mississippi. The Last Juror begins in 1970 when colorful characters like Harry Rex Vonner and Lucien Wilbanks were in their prime. As the story unfolds, as told by newspaperman Willie Traynor, a number of other residents take on a familiar identity.
Callie Ruffin is a strong Christian character. Three pages after readers are introduced to Callie, Willie Traynor describes her saying grace over a meal:
"She was talking to her Lord, and her face was perfectly content. For a few seconds, I actually forgot about the food. She squeezed my hands as she petitioned the Almighty with eloquence that came only from years of practice. She quoted Scripture, the King James Version for sure, and it was a bit odd to hear her use words like 'thou' and 'thine' and 'whither' and 'goest.' But she knew precisely what she was doing. In the clutches of this very holy woman, I had never felt closer to God."
The nice thing about Grisham's Christian characters is their believable portrayals. Grisham's novel The Testament had a scene of conversion for the central character, but it didn't presume to convince the reader to do the same thing. Grisham's characters tend to ring true over most "Christian fiction" for the simple fact that he has no particular agenda he's trying to sell (other than a good story). He simply offers a description of who the character is with some background on why they are that way. The plot is just a description of how they interact with the other characters in the book. His villains are given the same treatment--not sanitized or particularly editorialized. Wilbanks is described by Traynor as "downright mean," while Harry Rex becomes a bit of a bad influence playing against the good influence of Callie Ruffin. Whether Traynor ultimately incorporates the influences of one or the other into his own outlook on life is left up to the reader to decide.
Grisham finds a nice balance between the ugliness, pleasures, and ironies of life. It's probably the secret of his success as a writer.