Banned Books Awareness: A Time to Kill

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Here’s a Jeopardy question for you:

What do The Client, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and A Time to Kill have in common?

Sure, they’re among John Grisham’s bestselling works, but each has also been removed from a library because someone objected to its content.

A Time to Kill, Grisham’s first novel, was released in 1989, and rejected by many publishers before being given a modest 5,000-copy printing. After follow-up novels in the early 1990’s like The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client became bestsellers, interest in A Time to Kill grew, to become a bestseller in its own right. In 1996 the novel was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film starring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson.

In 1984 Grisham witnessed the testimony of a 10-year-old rape victim at a courthouse in Hernando, Mississippi. According to Grisham’s official website, he used his spare time to work on his novel, which “explored what would have happened if the girl’s father had murdered her assailants.” He spent the next three years on A Time to Kill and cited another banned classic, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, as an influence.

The story centers on 10-year-old Tonya Hailey, who is brutally raped by two white racists- James Louis “Pete” Willard and Billy Ray Cobb. Shortly after, Tonya is found and rushed to a hospital, while Pete and Billy Ray are heard bragging in a roadside bar about what they had done.

Tonya’s enraged father, Carl Lee Hailey, recalls a similar case in which four white men raped a black girl in a nearby town and were later acquitted. Carl vows not to allow that to happen again. As Pete and Billy Ray are escorted by police up a flight of stairs inside the courthouse, Carl Lee emerges with an assault rifle and kills Pete and Billy Ray, accidentally wounding Deputy Looney in the process.

A major variation between the novel and the film lies in the powerful closing argument. In the film, the visual and graphic story is told by Jake Brigance, along with imploring the jury to imagine that the victim was white. However, in the book, a woman on the jury made that speech during jury deliberations. There is a recurring theme throughout the book in that Jake is the only character who does not see the case through a racial lens. He repeatedly refuses to play the “race card” even when baited to do so by several reporters, and is clearly more politically conservative than an attorney arguing such a case at the time was expected to be; he sees the situation from the perspective of the father of a daughter whom he, too, would kill to protect.

As one might expect, due to the subject matter it found itself on the shelves of the American Library Association’s Banned Books in the American South, particularly in the state of Texas, despite the fact that the setting of it and other novels is Grisham’s home state of Mississippi.

According to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Grisham’s works have been repeatedly challenged for depictions of violence, rape, and the use of- *GASP*- “curse words.”

Immediately after the release of the movie adaptation, it was repeatedly challenged or banned in Texas public schools over an 18-month period for themes of racism and sexually-graphic material. The four books have also been banned since 2005 in prisons across Texas for content that was deemed “inflammatory” by the prison system.

Grisham discussed the banning of A Time to Kill on “The Daily Show: with Jon Stewart” in 2005. Speaking on the controversy, Grisham made light of the situation, saying, “You’re in good company if you’ve been banned. It’ll do wonders for your sales; gives you more clout when you negotiate your next book deal.”

According to Marshall University, it was also challenged in 2006, but later retained, in the advanced English classes of Fargo, North Dakota North High School with complaints about the graphic rape and murder scenes.

A Time to Kill is currently ranked at number 67 for the most frequently banned book of 2000-2009.

Sources: American Library Association, Marshall University, LA Times, Christian Science Monitor

© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

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