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Onyx reviews: The
Last Juror by John Grisham
With The Last Juror, John Grisham has found the perfect balance between his
hallmark legal thrillers and his more personal stories. He returns to where he
began, Clanton, Mississippi, the setting of A Time to Kill. The time is the
1970s and a young college dropout named Willie Traynor borrows money to bring
the Ford County Times out of bankruptcy.
Willie has a vision for his newspaper, an idea of how to make it profitable
again. His mission is to record the life and times of Clanton—all of it,
including what goes on across the tracks where the black community lives. He
fills page after page with human-interest stories, obituaries and reports on
local sports, the heart and soul of the community.
Fate throws him a big bone, though, when a violent murder takes place and the
prime suspect is a member of the legendary, reclusive Padgitt family. Many local
politicians, including several sheriffs, have been on the Padgitt payroll, but
this time Willie is determined that the Padgitts won't bribe or coerce their way
out of trouble. He puts his life at risk by taking them on within the pages of
his newspaper and he's not above a little yellow journalism. Circulation
increases to record levels.
Though the trial of Danny Padgitt and its effect on the community play a pivotal
role in the narrative, The Last Juror is really about the way Willie mines the
resources of his community and, in a way, reintroduces Clanton to itself. Under
its previous ownership, coverage of black affairs was limited to the former
editor's legendary obituaries. Willie decides to spotlight the Ruffin family and
their matriarch, Miss Callie, in a front-page serialized spread that illuminates
this family's successes through adversity. Seven of the eight Ruffin children
are college professors. Willie's feature is instrumental in paving the way for
Callie Ruffin to become the county's first black juror when she is empanelled to
sit on the Padgitt jury. During the trial, Padgitt threatens retribution against
the jury if they convict him and when his life sentence is ended by parole after
less than a decade, the residents of Clanton—and most especially the former
jurors—fear that Padgitt will make good on his threat.
For years, both before and after the trial, Willie makes weekly visits to Miss
Callie, where he enjoys her fine cooking, her stories and her company. This
relationship is the core of the novel, whose title does not accurately reflect
either the story or its focus. In spite of the occasional murder and some
criminal mayhem, The Last Juror is only marginally a crime novel or a legal
thriller. It has more in common with A Painted House than with The
uses the book to explore integration, race relations, small town politics, urban
spread, the detrimental effects of department superstores, and the Vietnam War.
This is a charming novel, with just enough action thrown in to keep things
Rarely has Grisham explored a single character like Willie Traynor over such an
extended time period. He comes to Clanton as an eager, wet-behind-the-ears,
brash young man from up north and, through the influences of those he works with
and the good people of this kind-hearted town, he evolves into a gentleman
businessman who, by the end, has become part of the town, but perhaps ultimately
feels limited by it. If this book is representative of where Grisham's literary
interests really lie, the best from him may be yet to come.
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