Kelly Strom | Grisham's latest book once again shows he's a master storyteller

Kelly Strom | Grisham's latest book once again shows he's a master storyteller

In a state that is considered one of the poorest and least educated states in the country, Mississippi has produced an impressive array of Pulitzer Prize winners, as well as those honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nobel Prize and the National Book Award.

Besides the likes of well-known authors William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright and Shelby Foote, the state was also the birthplace of Oprah Winfrey, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Buffett, Jim Henson and Walter Payton. I think it's safe to say that Mississippi has a strong foothold in American culture.

Although he was born in Arkansas, John Grisham made his home in Mississippi for many years, and it is featured as a setting in many of his novels.

In his latest, "The Reckoning," the reader is once again led to Ford County in the northern part of the state. Although each is focused on different eras in U.S. history, Ford County has been the setting for three other novels by Grisham and one short story collection.

"The Reckoning" is set in 1946, just as World War II has ended, and the residents of small town Clanton, Miss., are getting back to their routine of farming and church-going.

Upstanding citizen Pete Banning had just returned from the war a year ago as a former POW and hero. The war had changed him though, and as he picked up the duties as a cotton farmer and estate holder, things didn't seem to be the way he had remembered. Before long, he sent his beloved wife to an insane asylum and worked tirelessly with his estate foreman, all while devising a plan.

The book begins as Pete awakens one morning and decides that this will be the day he will seek revenge. He makes himself some coffee, writes his children each a letter at college and walks over to his sister's cottage, where he partakes in a sumptuous farm breakfast.

He then heads back to the house, gets his gun and drives into town. He parks at the Methodist Church, where he is a member, walks in to the pastor's office and shoots his friend at point-blank range. He walks into the hallway, tells the maintenance man to call the police, then goes home to sit on his front porch and await the sheriff.

Of course, Pete is brought into the jail, where he is questioned by the men he's been friends with for decades. The Banning Family have owned that land and been prominent members of the community, and the Methodist Church, for a century.

The sheriff is bewildered at Pete's actions, and no explanations are given. Pete simply admits what he has done and asks to be treated no differently than anyone else. The family lawyer is baffled at how to treat the situation, as Pete is refusing to cooperate with building any sort of defense.

Although the murder of Rev. Bell is the basis of the plot, many stories are woven into the fabric of the story to offer possible explanations for the crime or background in the life of the Bannings.

When the college-age son comments that "this family needs a full-time lawyer," he doesn't mean that lightly. What was once perceived to be a simple, yet comfortable life, is proving to be wrought with secrets and tragedies. This is where Grisham takes a turn from his usual introduction of the clever trial attorney who comes in to save the day.

As the first third of the book is devoted to the crime and its ramifications, the middle third is dedicated to Pete Banning's experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war and his participation in the infamous Bataan Death March.

Some legal thriller readers may be put off by the large section of the book describing the detailed horrors of war with historical precision, but it serves to make an even greater statement on Pete's reasoning and trials, as well as the mood of the country at the time. This third fills out the story to immeasurable lengths of civic pride, admiration and sorrow. Pete Banning was a man of many sides, most of which his closest family and friends never knew.

The last third of the book is the aftermath of the court's decision on the murder case and its effect on Pete's two children.

They both struggle with balancing their need to finish college with a concern for the family, their ancestral land and what the future may mean as a Banning.

The novel was powerful on many levels and proves once again that Grisham is a master storyteller who can bend any plot to something that is immediately relatable and emblematic of our country's current affairs.

This one will keep you thinking long after turning the last page.

Kelly Strom is the collection manager at the Champaign Public Library. She orders books, ebooks, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks and CDs.

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