Ernest J. Gaines

A Gathering of Old Men

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A Gathering of Old Men Summary

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A Gathering of Old Men is a 1983 novel by the American author Ernest J. Gaines. Set on a Louisiana plantation, the novel follows the plantation’s part owner Candy Marshall as she tries to protect the black murderer of a racist work boss Beau Boutan. Gaines, who grew up as a fifth-generation sharecropper on a plantation in Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, has chronicled the history of this area in novels and short stories since 1964, winning the 1993 National Book Critics’ Circle Award and the National Humanities Medal. Gaines is also a Chevalier of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

On the Marshall Plantation in Bayonne, Louisiana, the Cajun work boss Beau Boutan has just been murdered. The body is discovered by Candy Marshall, part owner of the plantation and overseer, outside the house of a black worker named Mathu. Candy suspects that Mathu is responsible for the death, but Mathu is like a foster father to her, so she is determined to protect him.

She gathers everyone in the plantation to Mathu’s house, and when Miss Merle, a local plantation owner, arrives on the scene, Candy confesses to Baton’s murder.

Miss Merle does not believe Candy’s confession, but understanding her motives, she agrees to help. Candy gathers as many local men as possible at Mathu’s house, together with as many twelve-gauge shotguns and empty shotgun shells as they can find. She hopes that faced with this profusion of conflicting evidence, Sheriff Mapes will be stumped. Miss Merle sends out word of Candy’s plan, and within a matter of hours, eighteen men have arrived at the house. They are all elderly—seventy or more—and each man has brought a shotgun.

The Sheriff is not the only threat to Mathu, however. The dead man’s father, Fix Boutan, is notorious for whipping up lynch mobs against local blacks. Candy and the others know that he will seek revenge against his son’s killer by any means available.

Sheriff Mapes arrives, together with Candy’s boyfriend, Lou Dimes. When the Sheriff sees what has happened, his first thought it to send his deputy to find Fix and keep him off the plantation. He knows that if Fix gets involved, a lynching is sure to follow.

Candy confesses to the murder, but the Sheriff isn’t even momentarily convinced. He begins to question the old men. The first two, Billy Washington and Gable, both confess to the murder. The Sheriff hits them each a couple of times, but neither man budges. Sheriff Mapes turns to Reverend Jameson, who refuses to tell him what is going on. The Sheriff punches Reverend Jameson to the ground, and the remaining men all stand up and present themselves to the Sheriff so he can hit them too.

The Sheriff is taken aback by this turn of events. Realizing that his questioning is going nowhere, he tries to work out for himself who the most likely suspect is. He rules out Beau’s main underling, Charlie—even though he is nowhere to be found—on the grounds that Charlie is too psychologically weak to have stood up to Beau. Following this reasoning through, he concludes that the only local black man with the strength of will to murder a white is Mathu, who has been known in the past to stand up to whites in the community.

However, the Sheriff has no evidence against Mathu, and on the other hand, he has a dozen confessions from other people. Each of the old men has a legitimate motive for Beau’s murder: one man’s sister was raped by the work boss, another man’s son was falsely accused of a crime and executed.

The Sheriff remains convinced that Mathu is guilty, but he concedes that he can do nothing. Instead, everyone waits at the house to see if Fix will show up.

The late Beau’s brother, Gil, plays football for Louisiana State University. His partnership with a black halfback, Cal, has earned them the nickname “Salt and Pepper.” When he first learns of his brother’s murder, Gil’s grief prompts racist feelings, and he falls out with Cal. However, when he visits the Plantation, he is moved by the confessions of Candy and the old men.

When Gil arrives at his family home, Fix is in the process of organizing a vengeful mob. Gil tries to persuade him that the days of lynching are in the past: Fix should leave matters in the hands of the police. Fix and Luke Will, a family friend, argue with Gil, but Gil refuses to take part in the violence, arguing that it will jeopardize his chances of playing pro football. Although he is not convinced by Gil’s argument, Fix decides that he will not revenge Beau without his son’s cooperation. Luke has no such qualms, and he leads a group of men to the local bar, to get liquored up in preparation for the lynching.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Mapes has learned of Fix’s decision to stay home. Mathu agrees to accompany the Sheriff to jail, but before they can leave, Charlie arrives. He confesses to Beau’s murder, explaining that he has spent the day in hiding, but wants to show that he can take his punishment like a man.

Sheriff Mapes accepts Charlie’s confession, but as they prepare to leave, Luke and his mob arrive. They demand that the Sheriff hand Charlie over to them, and when Mapes refuses, Luke shoots the Sheriff in the arm. The old men—who have been hiding a stash of live shotgun shells—start shooting at the white mob. Mapes and one of the mob, Leroy, are injured. In the course of the battle, Charlie and Luke shoot each other dead. The battle over, the plantation community gathers to pay their respects to Charlie’s body.

Some weeks later, all the men involved in the gunfight are tried together. All are placed on a five-year probation. Mathu and the old men leave together. Candy and Lou linger outside the courthouse, taking comfort in each other.

A Gathering of Old Men explores themes of racism and community cohesion in the American South. The novel was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1987.