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Review of ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham

September 30, 2014

Thank you’ is all I can say Grisham, once more you have outdone yourself. Everytime I close your book, I do so with tears in my eyes. Some of your fictions are too short, some are moderate but for this one, I took a long time living off the book – like almost a month, soaking up each and every character as usual. I have to say the characters were not impressive. But then none have been in any of your works which is why I like you. Your characters are human, flawed, natural – the way we all are. One has to dig deep within the framework to find anything worthy – and usually we do like in Seth or Ancil as in this case. The reference is subtle. We have to draw our own conclusions which is what I like best.

Well I can’t figure out again why Grisham is fixated on ‘social justice’ but the more I read him, the more I feel ashamed for biased views I take of the world. Many times I remind myself why India needs to retain the quota system for the reserved categories for a while longer. The book is a good justification.

I also grew up thinking Law and Commerce were driest subjects to learn. But one of my best friends was hooked on to Law. She no more goes to the court but through her, I had a chance to peer at Law College, Madras. Got familiar with a bit of legal lingo around this point of time. I knew Law could never become my cup of tea but again everytime I read you Grisham, I wish I had taken up Law.

I do have an Indian American relative practising Law in the US, actually she runs her own law firm.

Back to ‘Sycamore Row’ – the book is a surprise dealing with the touchy subject ‘Will’ or ‘Testament.’ Right now, a family closely related to us is locked in legal battles regarding one such ‘purported’ Will by an old man that left out daughters. The daughters are now fighting the sons in the court, as sons and daughters are equal in the eyes of Law in India. The outcome is a question mark because a good chunk of the old man’s estate was self-earned, not handed down to him by ancestors. So like Seth Hubbard, the man had every right to distribute his wealth to whoever he fancied.

I don’t know about Herschell and Ramona in ‘Sycamore Row’ but I feel rotten touching my parents’ money every month. My parents are no more. I have never done anything worthwhile for them, i have not discharged my duty as daughter… so I feel awful. At the same time, its also impossible to think of anyone else landing our family’s fortunes/estates. I am clear about that. So about Lettie, I had this vague idea right from the beginning that Seth must have had a good reason for doing what he did. Otherwise it is not normal for any person to bequeath his wealth – little or substantial – to a third party leaving out family in the cold. My doubts got confirmed by the time Ancil hit the story. So that way, Grisham becomes predictable but usually he is. He is no detective story writer.

Family suicides are an emotional drain, psychological trauma. Recovery is not easy for the rest of the survivors. The guilt feeling of negligence always stays with you. I can’t believe Seth’s children in the book Ramona and Herschell take their father’s suicide so casually. May be because theirs was an affection-less disjoint, cold family.

‘Sycamore Tree’ brings back such a lot of bitter memories.

Grisham, in many ways you have cleared airs about my own personal life/story. I still don’t feel ‘closure’ about my father who committed suicide.  I Perfectly understand why Seth did what he did.


I am a firm believer in ‘Karma’ – being born a Hindu, it is no surprise. And we hindus believe, Karma is not limited to ourselves. Our Karma hinges a lot on our ancestors, and the same way, we pass on our own karma to our future generations as well. ‘Karma’ is like Newton’s third law of motion – for every action, there is bound to be an equal and opposite reaction. Whatever happens, happens for a reason.

Seth Hubbard carried bad Karma, a very huge burden, in his shoulders. It is only natural that he felt compelled to place it down in his lifetime, eliminating the future generations from paying for their forefathers’ sins.

To hang Seth from the same sycamore tree from where hung Sylvester Rinds – Grisham must believe in Karma, what else can I say.

A very well told story Grisham, a compelling read as usual. I too have a crush on Jake now, believe me! You always have characters like Harry Rex and Lucien in your books I see but i kind of like them too! I like your sense of justice over anything. Man, you have no idea  how much wonders you work with my mind!

We don’t have Jury type of judgement in India, maximum what we have is a bench. But i am impressed with the way Jury trial is undertaken in the US. I would want the same to be implemented in India too. Only catch is, our people are very corrupt and can easily be bought over.

Yeah i have read about lynchings in an another era in America, but its so shocking to read about it now. World is a lot civilized presently and America leads the world in human rights protection. I have immense respect for American judicial system. Its amazing how the jurors set their mind to think, taking in the valid points and discounting the rest. Like how they make it top priority to respect Seth’s death wish over how they wish it had all been. That kind of mentality or thinking needs proper education and maturity. I don’t think fellow Indian citizens are yet prepared to play their roles as impartial jurors as American citizens. So wait we will have to for a while until we evolve into such a neat bunch of decent folks, uninfluenced or side-tracked by irrelevant distractions.

Both the brothers Ancil and Seth are very fine characters although they are hardly chief characters in the entire book. They are mostly conspicuous by their absence.

Grisham, let me tell you what is the case in India when it comes to Will.

1. If you leave a will, it has to be probated and registered at 8% state registration duties. As of now, the property prices have hit the roof. So many are dying intestate – there is a clause by which the regn charges can be avoided/minimized with the legal heirs registering title deeds as ‘gifts’ to spouses/off-springs in an indirect manner.

2. If someone dies intestate, the legal heirs of that person divide the estate equally among themselves. If any legal heir is not surviving, his/her own legal heirs may take his/her place/share.

3. Instead of dying intestate, what folks in my place are doing is: gifting their children/spouse/legal heir the estate in their own lifetime. All that is required in this case is a registration of title deeds plus a fixed ceiling of 10,000 bucks per registration and NO OTHER REGISTRATION CHARGES/TAXES except perhaps legal fees to counsel. Again the catch is, a gift deed is reversible anytime and can be challenged in court. Still this is the cheapest/most economical way of transferring titles in India circumventing the government taxes. This however requires that the executor of the gift deed does it in his/her own lifetime which is a grave risk. Suppose our children are scoundrels, we are finished!

4. Execution of ‘gift deed’ is not possible in those that are not inherited/ancestral properties.

5. We have now the legal facility of ‘reverse mortgaging’ properties/estates available for senior citizens. Under this bank loan/mortgage scheme, elderly citizens can exercise the option of ‘reversely mortgaging’ their estates in the bank for loans to pay for their medical treatment or even for mere sustenance in lieu of pension, or holiday or whatever. On the demise of the elderly who reverse-mortgage their estates, the banks can depose of their property, pay off the loan with interest and distribute the balance to legal heirs. I am sure this kind of legal provision exists in America as well. Big boon to the elderly especially tto hose who do not trust their children or who have ungrateful children.


Perfectly agree with Herschell character that feels children are not born hating anyone. It is onto the parent to earn a child’s love and respectability. Its true no old man need leave his life savings for his issues and he has a right to dispose it off the way he seems fit, yet it is the duty of every father/mother to take care of his/her brood because children do not beg of us to be born in the family. We bring them into this world. So we owe them big way. Give children your time, they may not always be wanting your money.

I do look forward to closure in my father’s case. My heart goes out to the man – I can perfectly understand Robin Williams the way none can. I wish I had been older, more mature to handle things way back then.

Dear Amma and Appa, you may have left me high and dry when I needed you the most, but I do appreciate whatever you have still left for me and then for your grandson. It is all your hardwork and blood. Thanks to your sweat I can hope to have a better lifetime. Forever and for many more janams I will remain indebted to you for this. I will carry with me this burden, this karma, forever and ever, still thank you. In next janam, be born as my children so that I can give you back all that I am taking from you, not giving you anything in return.  Not even a cuppa.



India is predominantly a nation of simple, honest, hardworking people – mostly middle-class.

Why I like Grisham is for this purpose: his heroes are not celebs or page 3 guys but those like us, the middle-class folks. We have no connections, our story is typical but straight.

India is a colossal mass of over a 1.2 billion humans out of which roughly about 600 million upwardly mobile middle-class folks like us have been working hard to put the nation where we are today. So are we all insignificant. Our story sure will not make heads turn but our story is still a good one. Honest one.

India is full of Grisham characters – it is strange that I find so much similarity between his world and mine even though there is an ocean of difference between ours, literally.

Lettie with her weaknesses, Jake with his problems, Lucien and Harry Rex are precisely my kind of people with all their faults and short-comings. I can identify with them because I belong in their world irrespective of the race factor. To me these are ‘decent folks,’ heroes in real life. Lettie is shown not to be greedy as the book rounds off, sharing the spoils with the true legal heirs which is magnanimous on her part. I wouldn’t have wanted the story to end any other way. One more point I can tally with the author – on how Lettie splits the money with the Seth children. We all have a conscience to answer to.


We are a family who have given up a lot in landceiling. Both rural and urban. When ‘Bhoodhan movement’ (land donation movement) was initiated by Shri Vinoba Bhave, both sides families donated/surrendered acres of land in the family for generations to the government, to be re-distributed to landless agrarians. And we were not alone, thousands and thousands of landowners did that wholeheartedly throughout India wanting to share their Zamins with the poor and the landless. Our folks did not want to transfer anything to ‘benamis’ as was also done by some landowners. We don’t regret it. The last transfer took place right in front of my eyes in the ’70s. Later, whatever was left, my maternal grand father sold again and held the proceeds in a trust after my mother’s demise. The trust is operational even now. We are shy of even having anything to do with the trust and have handed it over to the government. The trust properties include godowns and shops in business districts of the city. My family has given up over 2 dozen hot properties in the heart of Chennai which helps in running over half a dozen orphanages and temples today.  It even supports a mid size school. We don’t even want our names to appear anywhere in the trust. We like to remain the anonymous donors. Even that credit I don’t want. Its not mine – it was my great grand father’s who I never knew. I don’t even care to tell people about my grandfather’s sacrifices, never have done – and my son will never hear it from me either.

All i know today is, it takes a big heart to do what my folks did. Seth Hubbard in the story did something like that. Which is why I can identify with this book. Try writing a cheque for a charity – you will know how difficult it is.

Today’s world is full of selfish people, thankless people. Sometimes I wonder whether all that my grandfathers did for this nation will go in vain.




From → Books

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