Sycamore Row, John Grisham’s Latest Novel Includes Genealogy in the Storyline

by , under County Records, Courthouse Reocords, Family History Research, Vital Records

I finished Sycamore Row, by John Grishman, yesterday. It was a relatively fast read, which Grisham’s novels generally are for me. The book was published by Doubleday in October 2013.

Set in the fictitious town of Clanton, in the fictitious Ford County, in northern Missisippi in 1988, it is a legal page-turner that involves research into the family tree of one of the central characters, Lettie Lang, an African-American housekeeper. The problem for Lettie and her daughter, Portia, in doing this research, is that Lettie has no birth certificate and she was raised by adoptive parents, the Langs, who are deceased. Portia and others try to go back through the historic records of Ford County, but they are stored in an old school building without much concert for archival preservation, and it’s hard to locate specific records.

The hero of the novel is Jake Brigance, who was the central figure of John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, published 25 years ago. That novel was set in 1985, and Jake won the trial that provides the story line of that first novel. Because Jake’s reputation for fairness is established in that trial, he is asked to be the lawyer of record for a deceased millionaire to defend a hand-written will. The will leaves the bulk of his fortune to Lettie Lang, his housekeeper, and also his main caregiver while he was suffering through  terminal lung cancer. The challenge for Jake is to prove the testamentary capacity of the decedant, and that he was not unduly influenced by Lettie.

As you might expect, old county records figured in the story. It was hard to read the thoughts of Jake (written, of course, by Grisham) about the uselessness of the old county records stored in that old schoolhouse. While Jake thought they were useless, however, Portia found them to be fascinating. She told Jake she was interested in becoming a lawyer and while she reads old court files she is becoming exposed to the law.

Through information discovered in a few land records, and with lots of interviews with distant cousins, Lettie and Portia are able to put branches on Lettie’s family tree. And as you might expect, that becomes important to the storyline. Speaking of branches, the story eventually comes out about why the book is named Sycamore Row.

While he is at it, Grisham takes the reader back in time in Mississippi to when disputes between whites and blacks sometimes were settled by lynchings.

To keep things moving along, there’s also a missing person investigation running through the novel.

When I borrowed this book from the local library, I had no idea that genealogy would figure into the storyline. I have enjoyed many of John Grisham’s books, and I did this one too. The fact that genealogical and family history research played an important part in this book enhanced the pleasure I took from reading it.

If you are interested in learning more about Sycamore Row and John Grisham, you can go to his website:, and you can do a Google Search for “Reviews Sycamore Row” and find many other opinions to read about the book.

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