Cool Hand Luke by Donn Pearce
First published back in 1965, Cool Hand Luke by Donn Pearce is a beautifully written novel set in the deep south of America. It follows a group of convicts who have been sentenced to hard labour in the confines of a chain gang. The 1967 silver screen adaptation of this novel, featuring Paul Newman, was hugely successful and was nominated for four Academy Awards. Due to this success, the novel was largely and undeservedly overshadowed.
The novel opens with an insight into the day of the gang, from the perspective of the story narrator Sailor. From these first few pages, the tight-knit relationships of the group, the brutal living conditions and repetitiveness of their lives are made clear. Their contempt and jealousy for the free and their respect and fear of their guards are also eloquently outlined. The descriptions conjure perfect images of their cramped, filthy, pain-filled lives. During a break from their strenuous labour, they reminisce about a convict that gave them all hope and became a chain gang legend, Cool Hand Luke.
Cool Hand Luke has the strength of character that being locked up just can’t break. He is a war hero who works hard on the roads to gain the respect of the guards. He gambles, bets and swindles to gain respect and admiration among his fellow convicts. While jailed, Luke’s mother passes away. Although he’s placed in solitary confinement to ensure he doesn’t escape to attend her funeral, he makes a bolt as soon as he can. This is when the story really comes to life. Knowing that one of their own has managed to escape gives the rest of the chain gang an entirely new lease of life. When Cool Hand Luke is eventually caught, the prison guards and bosses do everything they can to break his spirit.
Donn Pearce spent time in a chain gang after being caught for stealing and his insights come across magnificently in this book. I also admire how the author creates such a strong character. You instantly warm to him, even when you know the character has done terrible things. These acts remind the reader that although the convicts admire him, they should not necessarily so the same thing.
This is an excellent read for anyone enjoys classic novels like To Kill a Mockingbird. Not only is it beautifully written, but it gives the reader a unique insight into this period in history. It highlights a lifestyle that I am sure many would never be exposed to. I highly recommend it!
If you like Cool Hand Luke byDonn Pearce you’ll love Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann.