John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was set in the small town of Clanton in Ford County, Mississippi: population of 10,000 but “enough conflict to support fifty-one lawyers.” That 1989 book has since been followed by dozens of titles that have earned him the reputation of a master of legal thriller. In Ford County, Grisham revisits this fictional Deep South locale, but steps away from the genre that brought him literary fame.
First published in 2009, Ford County is a collection of seven short stories featuring an assortment of colourful and complex characters who have found themselves in unusual and ethically challenging circumstances. There’s a touch of legal drama in some of the stories, but the author’s approach is not at all procedural.
The book begins with “Blood Drive”, probably the most redneck of the seven novellas. It’s a testosterone-fuelled adventure of three young men travelling from Clanton to Memphis where they are supposed to donate blood to an injured construction worker. Their trip quickly descends into a series of unforeseen and life-threatening events.
“Fetching Raymond” is about a struggling, dysfunctional family facing the imminent execution of one of their own. Greater part of the story describes the final hours of their visit to the state penitentiary, just before Raymond is scheduled to be taken to the gas chamber. (Yes, the whole thing is as chilling as it sounds.)
In “Fish Files” we get to meet a lawyer, unhappy with his life, family and career. An unexpected phone call related to a long forgotten case suddenly raises the prospect of a massive change; if he plays his cards well, he will finally manage to have the life he wanted, far away from Clanton – and his family.
“Casino” deals with the issue of Native American gaming – controversial casinos operating on tribal lands. The issue itself is actually more of a background to the story; its central character is a middle-aged man trying to reinvent himself and make something of his boring, unimaginative life.
In “Michael’s Room” we meet another lawyer, kidnapped by members of a family greatly wronged in a legal process that has left them in deep poverty, as they’ve had to struggle for years to provide for their severely disabled child. How far will they go in their thirst for just revenge?
“Quiet Haven” brings us to another dreary location, a nursing home managed by a less than caring company. The main character infiltrates as an orderly, gathering any evidence that he could ultimately use in a lawsuit; but he’s a criminal himself with a well developed scheme of befriending the elderly and influencing them to change their wills to his benefit.
Finally, “Funny Boy” tells a heart wrenching tale of a man who returns to Ford County after years of happily living in San Francisco as an openly gay man. Disowned by his family, dying of AIDS and with no one to take care of him but an old black woman living on the wrong side of the tracks, small-town gossip and prejudice turn to the max.
To keep things brief and to avoid any spoilers, I’ve deliberately excluded the most important bit: in spite of the sad, even tragic, circumstances that Grisham describes, none of these tales is predictable. If some of them are tragic, they are not so for the obvious reasons. When it does come to worst (and it doesn’t necessarily), it’s still not the scenario you were expecting. Alongside greed, poverty, religious bigotry, racial prejudice, and homophobia, there’s also a tremendous amount of love and compassion (but indifference, as well). True to life, you could say.
When I finished reading Ford County, teary eyed after that last story, the image on the cover suddenly made sense. A country road with trees on both sides and glorious late-summer sunshine breaking through the foliage… When I first saw the book in my library, I thought this idyllic image was an odd choice for a Grisham book; I had to check twice to make sure I got the right Grisham. But, actually, it turned out to be just right.