You are here

Book review: <i>A Painted House</i> by John Grisham

The cover of the book

A Painted House is the story of cotton farming, baseball, family secrets, poverty, and growing up in Arkansas in the 1950s. A bit of a deviation from your standard John Grisham, but I’m not complaining.

The story

It’s September in 1952, and seven year old Luke Chandler is preparing for another season of cotton picking on the family farm in Arkansas. He and his Pappy head out to pick up their Mexican workers, and also to find a “hill family” to come down to the farm as well. The cotton needs to come in before the rains start, and the Chandler’s need all the help they can get just to stay afloat and maybe try to clear some of last year’s debt. Luke knows one thing for sure. He might help his Dad and his Pappy pick cotton every season, but he isn’t going to spend his life cotton farming. He’s going to be a baseball player with the Cardinals in St Louis.

Enter the Spruills and the Mexicans. Luke likes all the Mexicans except Cowboy, who frightens him. But the Spruills set up camp right on Luke’s front lawn, where he’s set up a makeshift baseball diamond. Luke hates the Spruills right away, with the exception of the the beautiful seventeen year old Tally.

Life in picking season begins as normal; with a lot of hard work. But things start to happen on the farm. Hank Spruill, the eldest son, is big and mean and aggressive towards Luke. There’s fights in town. There’s trouble brewing between the Mexicans and Hank. Tally’s off doing things she shouldn’t. And to top it all off, there’s a spot of bother with the neighbours, and the rain looks like it might come early this year.

Luke is burdened with a lot of grown up secrets, and he doesn’t know who to tell. He’s also burdened with a lot of grown up work, burdened with trying to live like a good Baptist, burdened with whether his house is no good because it isn’t painted, and burdened with whether or not his Uncle Ricky will come home from Korea alive. It’s a lot for a seven year old. How will he manage to sort everything out for his family, while keeping all his secrets?

The style

A Painted House is narrated by the seven year old protagonist, Luke, in the first person. In the main, this narration was done well. It’s always difficult to narrate from the point of view of a child, because let’s face it, if you actually got an average seven year old to narrate three months of his life to you it would make no sense and be full of irrelevant and/or dull fabrications, repetitions, and the child would get bored half way through and run off to play. However, when an adult narrates from the point of view of a child they can fall into that trap of endowing the seven year old with deductive and reasoning powers well beyond their years, because they forget what being a child is like. The Power Of One by Bryce Courtney is an excellent example of this problem. However, Grisham has managed Luke really quite well. While there are a couple of moments where I was jolted from the narration by a supposition by Luke that was a little two unrealistic, the character has a wonderful cockiness, confidence, unrestrained sense of childishness. Luke also has problems and secrets, and these are also realistically handled with childlike simplicity, fear, and confusion, while through Luke’s eyes the reader can understand how the adults are dealing with their problems, even if Luke doesn’t understand.

A Painted House is Grisham’s first break away novel from legal thrillers, and it was surprisingly enjoyable to me. I appreciated that he told it from a child’s point of view, because this set a good pace for the narration. The story wasn’t frantic, but it moved, and it moved well and twisted often enough that there weren’t dull moments. It was also more of a life snapshot—the story could have started well before and finished far into the future—and I enjoyed that too. The actual plot was fairly basic and there was nothing unexpected or shocking, but in classic Grisham style it kept you reading anyway.

There wasn’t anything particularly outstanding about A Painted House, but it was a decent read.

Who is this book for?

Grisham fans, most likely. And people who are not concerned with the subject matter of the book... I wouldn’t run around recommending this book willy nilly, and I’ll probably have completely forgotten it within six months. But if you feel as though you want something light to read, maybe you’re catching a plane, don’t want do too much thinking or concentrating, want something that will at least keep you reading, this might be for you.

If you like this book, you would also like...

If you want the whole deep south farming experience, I just finished Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells, which I will be reviewing shortly. And while A Painted House is okay, Little Altars Everywhere and its sequel The Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, have a whole lot more soul and feeling for me, in this genre.

In short

Title: A Painted House
Author: John Grisham
Publisher: Dell
ISBN: 044023722X
Year published: 2001
Pages: 480
Genre(s): Fiction
Review Type: 


I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


A wonderful book. Luke Chandler reminds me of myself in so many ways, and when with his parents they leave in search of a better life, it reflects a lot on what I have seen happen around me. The book makes wonderful reading.