|October 22, 2013|
|Pages||464 pp (Hardcover 1st edition)|
|ISBN||978-0385537131 (Hardcover 1st edition)|
Sycamore Row is a novel by John Grisham. It is a direct sequel to his first novel, A Time to Kill, and again features Jake Brigance as the main character. It was released on October 22, 2013. The novel held the top spot in the US best-seller list.
The Sycamore Row of the title refers to a row of sycamore trees in the countryside near the (fictional) town of Clanton, at the (also fictional) Ford County, Mississippi. The trees play an important role in the book's plot - though the full sinister significance becomes clear only in the end. It is suggested that these sycamores are very old, having been planted by Native Americans previous to the arrival of European settlers (and their black slaves) in what would become the State of Mississippi.
The story starts three years after the sensational events in the trial of Carl Lee Hailey (A Time to Kill). An employee of the rich reclusive Seth Hubbard is instructed to meet his boss at a location by these sycamores on an early Sunday afternoon. The employee finds that Mr. Hubbard has hanged himself from the tree because his terminal lung cancer had become too painful. Accompanying the body are very specific funeral and burial instructions.
Jake Brigance, Carl Lee's former attorney, has lost his home and dog due to the actions of the Klu Klux Klan who tried to intimidate him during the Hailey trial. Brigance is currently tied up in litigation with his own insurance company after his house was burnt down and has little to no money to show from the Hailey trial. Suddenly, he receives a letter from Seth Hubbard, containing a new holographic will that renounces a will he filed the year before in which he had left all his assets to his daughter and son as well as his grandchildren. In this new will, Mr. Hubbard stipulates that his children will receive nothing. Instead, five percent will be given to the local church and another five percent will be left to his long-disappeared brother Ancil Hubbard. The remaining ninety percent is to be given to his black housekeeper Letitia (Lettie) Lang. Further instructions stipulate that the will must not be filed until after Seth's funeral so that his children, who rarely visited him during his bout with cancer, can put on a show not knowing that they will ultimately be left with nothing.
Mr. Hubbard notes that his children will certainly contest the new will because they are greedy and that Mr. Brigance has to do whatever it takes to make sure the new holographic will is the enforced will. He says he chose Jake because of the admirable work that Jake did at the Hailey trial.
Soon Jake Brigance finds out that Seth Hubbard had earned more than 20 million dollars in a lumber mill business without telling anyone in Clanton - a fortune unmatched by any other individual in the rural, impoverished Ford County. As the testamentary executor publishes this sum, the entire town of Clanton shifts their attention to the case.
Seth Hubbard's children indeed place charges and attempt to contest their fathers new holographic will by claiming he was not capable when filing it - inaugurating a hotly contested court battle with many twists and turns. Brigance's first concern is to prevent the trial from becoming a straight race issue of blacks vs. whites. Since the Ford County has a while majority, so would be the jury. On the other hand, whites in Ford County are far from completely biased, as proven by the fact that the had elected a black Sheriff for two consecutive terms at an overwhelming majority. He believes that if the race issue is toned down, the jury might rule for Lettie on the case's own merits - i.e. that Seth Hubbard made his money himself and had the right to leave it to whoever he wanted, and that he knew what he was doing when changing his will.
First, Brigance has to get rid of a rabble-rousing black lawyer from Memphis, who gets to Clanton, involves himself in the case and makes a series of provocative acts which risk the chances of the case. Then, Lettie's husband, with whom she is on bad terms, kills two schoolboys in drunk driving, arousing great passions against the Lang Family and imperiling the chance of a fair trial. As a measure of damage control, Brigance convinces Lettie to immediately sue for divorce (which was on her mind anyway).
The trial finally opens, and starts well. Brigance builds up his case, and Lettie's own testimony makes a good impression on the jury - and Brigance succeeds in tearing holes in the testimonies of Seth Hubbard's children and their assertion to have been close to their father and deeply caring during his illness. However, the opposing lawyer manages to spring a surprise witness, whose testimony seems to show that Lettie had tried to influence an earlier ailing employee to leave her money in a holographic will - building the suspicion of her systematically preying on the weakness of old ailing people. Still another surprise witness is a former black woman employee with whom Seth Hubbard had sexual relations - implying that Lettie did, too.
The trial looks lost for Brigance, with even the two black jurors starting to strongly doubt Lettie's credibility. But at the last moment, the situation is changed again by a sensational deposition given by Mr. Hubbard's long-lost brother Ancil. Ancil, who had a very traumatic childhood , had left the Ford County and joined the US Navy at the of 17, vowing never to return, and had since led an adventurous (and often criminal) life around the world under a variety of assumed names, until finally located as a bar tender in Juno, Alaska. The disbarred Lucien - Brigance's friend and ex-partner who is a heavy alcoholic but when sober still a sharp legal mind - goes to Alaska and manages to obtain Ancil's recorded testimony.
Ancil Hubbard explains why Seth Hubbard left the money to his housekeeper and the significance of the sycamore tree from which Mr Hubbard hanged himself.
In the 1920s, Lettie's grandfather Sylvester - whom she never knew - owned a considerable plot of land. His being a landowner was a great rarity for a black in the Segregationist Deep South, and was greatly resented by racist whites in general - and in particular by his neighbor, Cleon Hubbard, who laid a claim to Sylvester's land. Cleon Hubbard - an aggressive man who was often violent to his own wife and to his two sons, Seth and Ancil - tried to go to court. However, Sylvester had an unassailable title to the land, registered during by the family during the Reconstruction period when Federal troops, present in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War, upheld the rights of blacks.
Having failed in the court of law, Cleon Hubbard resorted to the alternative method available at the time to whites in the Deep South - i.e. lynch law. Sylvester was falsely accused of "speaking rudely to white women" - which, together with resentment at his being a black landowner, was enough to mobilize a lynch mob. Several men dragged Sylvester from his home and hanged him from this same sycamore tree. His sons Ancil and Seth - who did not share their father's prejudice and sometimes played with the black children - secretly observed this scene with great horror. Subsequently, Cleon Hubbard intimidated Esther, Lettie's grandmother, who had just seen her husband being murdered with impunity, and forced her to sign away the family's for pittance, with a promise that she could continue residing on the property. However, the promise was promptly broken, Cleon and the Sheriff then expelling the entire extended family and setting fire to their homes, totally eradicating the small black community which had been known as "Sycamore Row". Esther had to escape with virtually no possessions left, her five year old daughter - who would become Lettie's mother - stark naked.
Years later, Seth Hubbard used the property purchased by his father as mortage in order to build his lumber mill. Knowing that his success is partly owed to this mortage and willing to make up for the injustice caused by his father, he decided to give the majority of his capital to Lettie Lang, and in a final act hanged himself from the same tree on which her grandfather was hanged.
After hearing Ancil Hubbard's testimony, the jury unanimously uphold the holographic will and rejects the charges against its validity placed by Seth Hubbard's children. However, an appeal seems very probable, which might last for years and consume a a large part of the legacy in legal fees; and the decision to let the jury hear Ancil Hubbard's testimony might be challenged on procedural grounds (it was a recorded testimony and the opposing councel had not chance to cross-examine him). Therefore, Judge Reuben Atlee suggests the parties to settle the case at reasonable conditions. As the judge suggests, after Ancil Hubbard and the local church get their promised share, five million dollars would be given to a fund providing college education to members of Lettie's family - all of whom share in the terrible legacy of the 1930 lynch and expulsion. Such a fund would also help Lettie get off her back numerous relatives who had shown up since the news spread came that she would become rich. Brigance would be in charge of this fund - giving him steady employment but also a lot of headaches. The reminder - six million dollars - would be divided equally between Lettie, Seth's son and Seth's daughter.
The compromise is acceptable to everybody. Lettie is content to get back the land which belonged to her grandfather and build on it a nice hosue for herself, her children and grandchildren, and does not mind to have Seth's children get at least some of his money. At the final scene, Ancil Hubbard arrives from Alaska and has an emotional meeting with Lettie and other protagonists under the Sycamore tree, she asking to let the past lie and look to a better future.
According to USA Today, "Jake Brigance returns to the courtroom in a 'dramatic showdown as Ford County again confronts its tortured history.'"
- "John Grisham sequel to 'A Time to Kill' to be published | Shelf Life | EW.com". Entertainment Weekly. May 1, 2013. Retrieved May 1, 2013.
- Deutsch, Lindsay (May 1, 2013). "Book Buzfz: John Grisham to write sequel to 'A Time to Kill'". USA Today. Retrieved May 1, 2013.