If your law practice involves inheritance disputes, you’ll want to read Sycamore Row, by John Grisham. In his latest novel Grisham returns to his roots, revisiting small-town Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance, who we first met in Grisham’s break-through thriller turned Hollywood blockbuster A Time To Kill (Jake is played by Matthew McConaughey in the movie version); and the will contest, a plot device Grisham mined to great effect in The Testament, his 10th novel.
“‘Sycamore Row’ reminds us that the best legal fiction is written by lawyers — Grisham, Scott Turow (who still practices), Louis Auchincloss (a trusts and estates lawyer), the Michigan judge William Coughlin.” (See A Time to Die, NY Times Book Review.)
Although first and foremost a great story, Grisham’s latest novel also delivers a virtual mini-course in probate law and the courts. At one point every character with an interest in the inheritance has lawyered up so that the presiding judge counts 12 attorneys in his courtroom, and he doesn’t like it. Through the filing of petitions, taking of depositions, revelation of witnesses, choosing of the jury, we get to follow the details of the case from beginning to end. Good stuff for lawyers and non-lawyers alike, a point underscored in The Washington Post‘s glowing review of the book:
Grisham’s return to Clanton is triumphant. “Sycamore Row” is easily the best of his books that I’ve read and ranks on my list with Stephen King’s “11/22/63” as one of the two most impressive popular novels in recent years. Grisham, at 58, has many books ahead of him, but this could be the one he’ll be remembered for.
It’s an ambitious, immensely readable novel about a bitterly contested will, but about other things as well. It’s often funny and sometimes tragic. If at least a few scenes don’t move you to tears, you may not be alive. It’s above all a novel about the Deep South, about Mississippi, where Grisham lived his formative years. At one point, Brigance tells an older lawyer that the battle over the will is simply about money. The man replies, “Everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake, don’t ever forget that.” He’s right, of course.
For an insightful and scholarly examination of Grisham’s Sycamore Row and the history of racial violence animating its plot, you’ll want to read Prof. McMurtry-Chubb‘s The Rhetoric of Race, Redemption, and Will Contests: Inheritance as Reparations in John Grisham’s Sycamore Row. Here’s an excerpt:
When Henry “Seth” Hubbard renounced his formally drawn wills and created a new holographic will on the day of his suicide, one that excluded his children, grandchildren, and ex-wives, and gave the bulk of his estate to his housekeeper and caretaker, a will contest was imminent. That Seth Hubbard was a white man living in rural Mississippi and his housekeeper, a Black woman, made the will contest illustrative of our ongoing national discomfort with slavery, the Confederacy, and the respective obligations of and responsibilities to the descendants of both. This is John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, a novel in which the reader journeys to discover the mysteries behind Seth Hubbard’s will, his intentions, his burden as a witness to a lynching over his ancestor’s land, and the fate of the descendants of the formerly enslaved who worked and settled that land known as Sycamore Row only to see its destruction when they asserted their right to it. Seth’s act of bequeathing the bulk of his estate to a stranger made family through blood spilled over stolen land and stolen, broken Black bodies is an important start to an important discussion: Who bears responsibility to the survivors of domestic terrorism, white supremacy, and for the benefits that white privilege bestows? The will contest encapsulates the rhetoric of race and redemption; in Sycamore Row Hubbard’s estate acts as reparations.
The Washington Post review picks up on a point that’s especially important if you hope to have any chance of really understanding Grisham’s latest novel: the South’s tortured history of race and violence is still very much with us . . . yes, even in something as mundane as a will contest. For example, and hopefully without giving away too much, you can’t truly “get” how horrific Grisham’s depiction of a man’s lynching in 1930 is, or why the present-day African American lawyers who appear in Grisham’s story conduct themselves the way they do, without having some inkling of what it was like to live as an African American in the “South” (which very much includes Florida), both then and now.
Context is everything (both in and out of the court room). And the threat of racial violence (often aided and abetted by local police and judges) was never far, a point made chillingly clear in another recently published book I highly recommend for Florida lawyers, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, by Gilbert King, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s back cover.
In 1949, Florida’s orange industry was booming, and citrus barons got rich on the backs of cheap Jim Crow labor. To maintain order and profits, they turned to Willis V. McCall, a violent sheriff who ruled Lake County with murderous resolve. When a white seventeen-year-old Groveland girl cried rape, McCall was fast on the trail of four young blacks who dared to envision a future for themselves beyond the citrus groves. By day’s end, the Ku Klux Klan had rolled into town, burning the homes of blacks to the ground and chasing hundreds into the swamps, hell-bent on lynching the young men who came to be known as “the Groveland Boys.”
And so began the chain of events that would bring Thurgood Marshall, the man known as “Mr. Civil Rights,” and the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century, into the deadly fray. Associates thought it was suicidal for him to wade into the “Florida Terror” at a time when he was irreplaceable to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but the lawyer would not shrink from the fight–not after the Klan had murdered one of Marshall’s NAACP associates involved with the case and Marshall had endured continual threats that he would be next.
Drawing on a wealth of never-before-published material, including the FBI’s unredacted Groveland case files, as well as unprecedented access to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund files, King shines new light on this remarkable civil rights crusader, setting his rich and driving narrative against the heroic backdrop of a case that U.S. Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson decried as “one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice.”