Book review: ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Few people in Ford County, Miss., had ever heard of Seth Hubbard, at least by name, when attorney Jake Brigance received the letter and handwritten will in the mail on a Monday morning. Almost everyone had heard about the man found hanging in a tree with a note explaining that since he was dying of cancer anyway, he had chosen to take his own life. He had also left detailed funeral arrangements, so people knew of Seth Hubbard; they just didn’t know Seth Hubbard.

Jake Brigance didn’t know Seth Hubbard — had never met him. He couldn’t imagine why he had received the letter, though it was explained inside. Brigance had earned a reputation as an honest lawyer who was willing to stand up for black citizens. That was rare in the old South. The rumor was that Seth Hubbard had a substantial estate. And representing the estate, based on a last-minute handwritten will, was going to be a challenge. Especially since Seth’s two children and their families were specifically excluded and 90 percent of the estate was to go to his Black housekeeper/nurse who had only worked for Hubbard three years. There were going to be challenges. Challenges were even more a sure thing, since the will, by a nearby law firm and written only three years ago, included both the family and consideration for the tax laws.

It should first be established that a handwritten will that meets certain conditions was legal in Mississippi. The will in question met those conditions. The debate that the challenges would be based on was the author’s competency at a time of his life when he was on painkillers for his cancer and contemplating suicide.

When the law firms in the area heard rumors that the estate might be worth upwards of $20 million, they were anxious to become involved, and many were. Hubbard’s two children each hired lawyers, as did his grandchildren. Even Lettie, the Black housekeeper, was represented by a lawyer. Lettie’s lawyer had been hired by her husband Simeon, looking out for his own best interests. That didn’t work out well. Jake Brigance represented the will and no individual, though Jakes’s success would be Lettie’s success.

Jake requested a jury trial. It was held locally, in Ford County, in front of the Honorable Judge Atlee. Judge Atlee felt it would be possible to seat an impartial jury in Ford County, and he demanded they try before any change of venue would be considered. A jury was seated, and the trial began. After Judge Atlee limited the number of lawyers who would have a say in the trial, presentations were made by both sides. The opposition lawyers had hired a consultant firm that investigated potential jurors. Judge Atlee was old school and wouldn’t approve Brigance’s use of money from the estate for such a purpose. Even so, the jury seemed as though they wanted to believe in the hand-written document. Surprise witnesses, found by jury consultants, changed that. But there were more secrets.

By now you’re wondering where the novel got its title. You do find out by the end.

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