Many writers look back from exile at their origins. Ernest Gaines was different. To tell the stories of the illiterate, impoverished black people he knew growing up in rural Pointe Coupee Parish, he had to return to his native Louisiana.
Gaines, who gained international recognition for his books about his small plot of earth, died in his sleep Tuesday at his childhood home. The revered Louisiana author was 86.
As a child, he worked in the fields among people a few generations removed from slavery. From his meager schooling, he'd learned to read and write, and composed letters for his co-workers and family members.
Along with many other blacks fleeing the South's racial violence, he moved to California as a young man. For the first time, he found himself free to read in a public library, and discovered Turgenev and other 19th century Russian novelists.
Loving the bohemian life of San Francisco, he graduated from San Francisco State, then received a prestigious Stegner fellowship to study writing at Stanford. The voices he knew in childhood remained with him.
Struggling in California to finish a book based on the strict, wheelchair-confined aunt who raised him, Gaines returned to Louisiana at the height of the civil rights movement. Back in Louisiana, he gained a clear vision of the plantation life he knew growing up and quickly finished "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," his breakthrough novel.
Tracing how history echoed in a life of quiet dignity, the book gave the world one of its most enduring characters, a woman raised in slavery who lived to 101 and saw the changes of the 1960s. Cecily Tyson gave a memorable performance as Miss Jane Pittman in a TV movie that won nine Emmy Awards.
Gaines further drew upon his memories of the black community in "A Gathering of Old Men," "A Lesson Before Dying" and other lauded books. He received a MacArthur "genius grant," and traveled the world. He always returned to his childhood home close to a body of water known as False River that had once been part of the Mississippi.
A genial, warm-hearted man who spoke with Louisiana's French-inflected cadences, Gaines revealed how the love of family and community overcame bitterness.