Inspired by his childhood in Arkansas, it is Grisham's first major work outside the legal thriller genre in which he established himself. Set in the late summer and early fall of 1952, its story is told through the eyes of seven-year-old Luke Chandler, the youngest in a family of cotton farmers struggling to harvest their crop and earn enough to settle their debts. The novel portrays the experiences that bring him from a world of innocence into one of harsh reality.
The story begins to unfold as Luke and his grandfather Eli, also known as Pappy, search for migrant workers to help them with the cotton picking. They initially consider themselves lucky to hire the Spruills, a family of "hill people," and a few Mexican migrant workers who annually come to the area looking for work.
Aside from working long hours under the hot sun in the fields, Luke's life is fairly idyllic until he sees the overly aggressive and mentally unstable Hank Spruill attack three boys from the notorious Sisco family, one of whom is beaten so severely he dies from his wounds. Hank arrogantly identifies Luke as a friendly witness who can support his version of the event, and the fearful boy backs up his story, although the adults in his life, including local sheriff Stick Powers, suspect he's too frightened to admit the truth.
When Luke sees Cowboy, one of the Mexicans, later murder Hank and toss his body into the river, Cowboy threatens to kill Luke's mother if Luke tells anyone what he saw. Cowboy and Tally, the teenage daughter of the Spruills, then run off together and are not seen again. Luke also learns that his admired Uncle Ricky, fighting in the Korean War, might have fathered a child with a daughter of the Latchers, their poverty-stricken sharecropping neighbors.
Grisham surrounds these dramatic moments with descriptive passages of life in the rural South and the ordinary events that fill Luke's weekly routine. His hard work in the fields is preceded by a hearty breakfast of eggs, ham, biscuits, and the one cup of coffee his mother allows him, and at day's end he's rewarded with an evening on the front porch, where the family gathers around the radio to listen to Harry Caray announce the St. Louis Cardinals baseball games. A devoted fan, Luke is saving his hard-earned money to buy a team warm-up jacket he saw advertised in the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Saturday afternoons are spent in town, where the adults share idle gossip and serious concerns and the youngsters visit the movie house, while Sunday morning is reserved for church. A visiting carnival, the annual town picnic, and Luke's introduction to television – to see a live broadcast of a World Series game – are additional bits of local color scattered throughout the tale.
A flood devastates the family's cotton crop before the harvest is completed, and Luke's parents decide to travel to the city to find work in a Buick plant, breaking a history of generations working on the land. The novel ends with Luke's mother smiling on the bus, having finally got her wish to leave cotton farming.
The book's title refers to the Chandler house, which never has been painted, a sign of their lower social status in the community. One day Luke discovers someone has been secretly painting the weather-beaten clapboards white, and eventually he continues the job with the approval of his parents and the assistance of the Mexicans, contributing some of his own savings for the purchase of paint.
On April 27, 2003, CBS broadcast a television adaptation directed by Alfonso Arau for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Aside from advancing Luke's age from seven to ten and adding a brief scene at the end, Patrick Sheane Duncan's teleplay remained faithful to its source and frequently used Grisham's dialogue verbatim.
The cast included Scott Glenn as Pappy, Logan Lerman as Luke, Robert Sean Leonard as Jesse, Melinda Dillon as Gran, Arija Bareikis as Kathleen, Audrey Marie Anderson as Tally, Luis Esteban Garcia as Cowboy, and Pablo Schreiber as Hank.
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