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July 03, 1994|CHARLES SOLOMON

A LESSON BEFORE DYING by Ernest J. Gaines (Vintage: $11; 256 pp.). Gaines won the National Book Critic's Circle Award for this compelling novel about race relations in the postwar South. College-educated Grant Wiggins has returned to his small Cajun hometown to teach in its cruelly segregated school system, but he chafes at the restrictions on his considerable abilities. When Jefferson, a simple-minded local teen-ager, is sentenced to death for his participation in a grocery store robbery, Wiggins' Aunt and Jefferson's godmother bully him into visiting the prisoner to teach him how to die with dignity. Gaines' atmospheric prose captures the galling constraints of a muggy backwater town dominated by a tin-pot elite.

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