Setting for Grisham book has changed a lot

Sunday, October 21, 2001

BLACK OAK, Ark. -- Author John Grisham still sees Black Oak as it was 50 years ago -- cotton-rich fields surrounding a small, thriving community in the flat, hot Arkansas Delta.

The Black Oak he once called home supported five grocery stores, four banks, four churches and a main drag that attracted so many people on Saturday nights it was difficult to walk down the street.

Today, tourists come hoping to place a scene from "A Painted House," a Grisham novel based on stories his father and grandfather told the writer as a child. At times, it takes a vivid imagination.

"It can't even be compared to what it was like then," said Bobby Grisham, a first cousin of the author.

There's talk about making a movie from the book, but it is likely that only a few shots, mostly of cotton fields, could be filmed here. Black Oak has changed so much since the time of Grisham's story that locals question the likelihood.

Boarded-up gas stations and shops and dilapidated houses now greet visitors. A few small homes, trees and farm buildings also dot the landscape.

The town, official population 277, takes up less than half a square mile on a blacktop state highway east of Jonesboro. All approaching roads cut through acres of cotton that fade into a white horizon.

The cotton harvest

"A Painted House" is Grisham's latest novel, telling the story of a family living just outside Black Oak in the early 1950s, raising cotton for a living and having a hard time making ends meet.

The 7-year-old boy in the story lives with his parents and grandparents in an unpainted farm house at a time when the farmers hired Mexicans and "hill people" to harvest the cotton crop:

"Highway 135 ran straight and flat through the farm country of the Arkansas Delta. On both sides as far as I could see, the fields were white with cotton. It was time for the harvest, a wonderful season for me because they turned out school for two months. For my grandfather, though, it was a time of endless worry.

"Highway 135 became Main Street for the short stretch it took to negotiate Black Oak. We passed the Black Oak Baptist Church, one of the few times we'd pass without stopping for some type of service. Every store, shop, business, church, even the school, faced Main Street, and on Saturdays the traffic inched along, bumper to bumper, as the country folks flocked to town for their weekly shopping."

Bobby Grisham said his childhood years resembled those of the 7-year-old narrator Luke.

"It pretty well describes it," he said. "He heard a lot of it from me."

Main Street here is quiet now, except for the occasional tourist.

"There's a lot of people come through just to see the town," said Johnny Williams, a Craighead County deputy sheriff. "People want to know if this is really the town where he was from. If we had a cafe or something, a lot of people would stop."

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