Grant has devoted himself to education at the insistence of his aunt, whom he calls Tante Lou. His first teacher and mentor, Antoine Matthews, told Grant his efforts to help his people through education would be futile, and Grant's only options would be to run away or stay and be broken. In college, Grant lost interest in the Catholic faith of his youth. Now, six years into his teaching career, Grant is weary, bitter, and obsessed with fantasies of escape. When he is given the responsibility of mentoring Jefferson, an uneducated young man on death row, Grant feels he has nothing to teach and trying is pointless. Grant reluctantly accepts the duty at the insistence of Tante Lou and his girlfriend, Vivian Baptiste. At first, his relationship with Jefferson is difficult and painful. Things begin to shift when Grant earns Jefferson's trust by bringing him a radio. As their relationship progresses, Grant realizes he is the one who needs a mentor and hero, not Jefferson. Grant needs Jefferson to show Grant what to do, because he is lost. Despite Jefferson's amazing transformation, Grant remains obsessed with escape, and finally lacks the strength to attend Jefferson's execution. The narrative ends with Grant realizing the faith he lacks is the first step to liberation. He is uncertain about the future, but knows it will be different from the past. Just as Jefferson's time is up, it seems Grant's internal transformation is only beginning.
Jefferson's young life has been marked by abandonment, toil, and poverty. When he witnesses a murder, he is charged with the crime. At his trial, his attorney compares Jefferson to a hog, a description Jefferson internalizes. Then Jefferson is sentenced to death. His godmother, Miss Emma, becomes determined to find a way to help Jefferson die with dignity, knowing he is a man. The job of mentoring Jefferson falls on the plantation's only schoolteacher, Grant Wiggins. At first, Jefferson is aloof, apathetic, hostile, and cruel. He becomes calmer when his execution date is announced, and Grant gives him a radio, which he listens to nonstop. Grant also gives Jefferson a notebook. Jefferson has never written anything, but fills it with his reflections on life's deepest questions. Meanwhile, the community rallies around him. This attention and caring make Jefferson finally feel like he is somebody, instead of nobody. Grant tells Jefferson he can be a hero and undermine the myth of white supremacy by his attitude and behavior. Jefferson is overwhelmed, but says he will do his best. He is not religious, but uses Christ's death to understand his own situation. By the time he dies, Jefferson has undergone a profound transformation. Once full of hate and anger, his quiet dignity shames his white executors. Like Christ, he approaches his unjust death without "a mumbling word," and Gaines makes it clear Jefferson's impact on the community is only just beginning.
Miss Emma worked her whole life as the cook for Henri Pichot's family, raising him and his siblings. She now demands that someone should do something for her in return before she dies, and uses her years of service to the family as a bargaining chip to secure the right to visit Jefferson in jail. She wants Grant Wiggins to teach Jefferson he's a man, not the hog Jefferson's attorney said he is. More delicate and less pushy than her best friend Tante Lou, Miss Emma is a woman of faith. Jefferson repeatedly pushes her into despair with his displays of self-hatred and his refusal to eat her food or speak to her. Food is her vehicle for expressing love, and she always brings or sends food to Jefferson with instructions to give leftovers to the other inmates. She becomes increasingly concerned that Jefferson be saved; she knows she will die soon and wants to see him in heaven, so she asks Reverend Ambrose to work together with Grant. Before Jefferson dies, she and he articulate their love for each other for the first time. Jefferson's last words are, "Tell Nannan I walked."
Tante Lou spent her working years as the Pichot family washerwoman. She raised Grant Wiggins, and sent him down the path of education. She has the faith in Grant that he lacks, and she is certain, because he is the teacher, that he is the one who can help Jefferson. Deeply religious, she is pained by Grant's lack of faith, which she believes to be the most important thing a person can have. She is a large, powerful, older woman, whom Grant routinely compares to a boulder or tree for her immovable will and physique. She expresses her love through food, and relies heavily on nonverbal communication. Tante Lou doesn't reason with Grant, but tells him what he is going to do. At first suspicious of Vivian Baptiste, she is convinced of Vivian's "quality" after Vivian treats her with respect and expresses her religious commitments. When things grow tense between Grant and Reverend Mose Ambrose, Tante Lou sides with the pastor, expressing her disapproval for Grant's faithlessness and disrespect.
Reverend Mose Ambrose
Reverend Mose Ambrose did not attend seminary, but heard the call to become a pastor and accepted it. He is the plantation community's unofficial leader and moral authority. Beginning with Jefferson's sentencing, Reverend Mose Ambrose becomes a constant support to Miss Emma and Tante Lou. There is a tension between him and Grant Wiggins. Reverend Ambrose disapproves of Grant, who has renounced his faith, and feels Grant's education has taught him nothing important about God, himself, or his people. While Grant is enlisted to teach Jefferson, Reverend Ambrose works to convince Jefferson to accept spiritual salvation before his death. Jefferson doesn't respond to the minister's message, but listens to the radio Grant gives him ceaselessly. Envious, the minister conceptualizes himself as battling with Grant over the fate of Jefferson's soul. Realizing Jefferson will never listen to him, Reverend Ambrose finally asks Grant to help him convince Jefferson to be saved. Grant insists he won't do this by lying to Jefferson that he believes something he doesn't, and Reverend Ambrose tells him lying to alleviate pain is a moral obligation—the belief in Jesus's salvation and an afterlife is what saves the black community from despair. He says he knows Grant looks down on him, but he is truly educated, whereas Grant is not. Reverend Ambrose is there with Jefferson during his execution while Grant refuses to attend, and this makes Grant realize Reverend Ambrose's faith makes him stronger than Grant.
Vivian Baptiste is a beautiful, stylish, mixed-race woman who teaches school in Bayonne and dates Grant Wiggins. Her family severed relations with her and her two children because she married a black man when she went to college. Vivian is currently in the midst of divorcing her husband, who threatens to take her children away. Her experiences have made her empathetic and perceptive, not bitter or racist. Vivian is more grounded, committed, and mature than Grant, and he relies on her moral authority because of his inability to make his own decisions. She is the one whose request compels him to work with Jefferson. He regards her as perfection itself, and claims to care only for her. Vivian, more perceptive than Grant, is unwilling to behave irresponsibly with him. When she visits the plantation for the first time, she lies down with him in the fields, in the manner of his ancestors. She is anxious to be accepted by his community, who she correctly fears will regard her as an outsider because of her mixed-race status. Vivian wins them over with her willingness to serve them and her religious dedication.
Jefferson and his visitors are instantly aware upon meeting Paul Bonin that he is a good man. He neither shares nor participates in the racism and authoritarianism of his superiors, but instead treats everyone with kindness, respect, and sincerity, including the prisoners who are his charges. He and Grant Wiggins quickly establish a connection, and Paul explains he's been warned not to get close to men on death row, but to treat them well and maintain distance. Nonetheless, Paul becomes emotionally involved in Jefferson's situation. When Jefferson is finally executed, Paul Bonin is the only person present whom Jefferson sincerely likes and trusts. Jefferson also entrusts Paul with giving his notebook to Grant, and though Paul wants to read it, respect for Jefferson stops him. Paul comes to the plantation to describe to Grant the strength and dignity of Jefferson's last moments. Remarking on Jefferson's incredible transformation, Paul tells Grant he is an extraordinary teacher and asks to be his friend. Grant invites him to come back and talk to the larger community about Jefferson. Paul's desire to be an ally to Grant and his community signal a healing shift in black-white relations.