La Crosse Reads

La Crosse Reads, a community-wide, grass-roots book read, is part of a $14,000 National Endowment for the Arts Big Read grant received by the UWL English Department and the La Crosse Public Library. Numerous public presentations have been held to discuss Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, “A Lesson Before Dying.” The book tells the story of a young teacher’s relationship with a death-row inmate wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder, and how this unusual relationship affects the community of a small, fictional Cajun town.

Area Big Read event kicks off with ‘Books and Brunch’

The area’s first grass-roots, community-wide book reading gets underway later this month.

Along with encouraging the reading of a book, “La Crosse Reads” will include a series of community conversations, presentations by nationally-recognized speakers, along with film screenings and small-book discussions to draw attention to issues highlighted in Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, “A Lesson Before Dying.” Gaines’ eighth novel, published in 1993, tells the story of a young teacher’s relationship to a death-row inmate wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder, and how this unusual relationship affects the community of a small, fictional Cajun town.

The community-wide, grass-roots book read is part of a $14,000 National Endowment for the Arts Big Read grant received by the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse English Department and the La Crosse Public Library. Area libraries, schools and other organizations are joining Read activities with a variety of programming and venues.

UWL Assistant Professor of English Kate Parker, left, and colleague Assistant Professor of English Bryan Kopp were two of the authors of a $14,000 National Endowment for the Arts Big Read grant received by the UWL English Department. The grant is funding “La Crosse Reads,” which along with a community-wide book read will bring nationally recognized speakers and generate community-wide conversations around Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, “A Lesson Before Dying.”

Main events scheduled include:

  • Saturday, Jan. 28, 10 a.m.-noon — Books and Brunch, a kick-off event, La Crosse Public Library, 800 Main St.
  • Thursday, Feb. 2, 6:30-8:30 p.m. — Film Screening of “Dead Man Walking,” La Crosse Public Library, 800 Main St.
  • Wednesday, Feb. 8, 5:30 p.m. — Community Conversation and Panel, the Ho-Chunk Nation’s Three Rivers House, 724 Main St.
  • Wednesday, Feb. 15, 7 p.m. — Keynote by Reginald Dwayne Betts, an American poet, memoirist and lawyer. He is author of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Penguin/Avery, 2009), Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), and Bastards of the Reagan Era (Stahlecker Selections, 2015); 2160 Bluffs Room, UWL Student Union. Book-signing and reception immediately prior at 6 p.m.
  • Thursday, Feb. 16, 7 p.m. — R. Dwayne Betts gives a reading of his poetry at Western Technical College’s Lunda Center. Book-signing and reception immediately prior at 6 p.m.
  • Thursday, Feb. 23, 7 p.m. — Deborah Appleman, a professor of educational studies at Carleton College who regularly teaches literature classes to inmates at Minnesota State Penitentiary, Stillwater, Minnesota; 2160 Bluffs Room, UWL Student Union. Book signing at 6 p.m.
  • Friday, March 3, 6 p.m. — Matthew Hefti, veteran, author of “A Hard and Heavy Thing” and defense attorney with the Wisconsin Innocence Project will give a talk on his exoneration work at the La Crosse Public Library, 800 Main St.

There are also “Little Reads” being planned that will feature young adult and children’s books, along with visits from nationally-recognized authors. For a complete and regularly-updating schedule of activities, visit www.lacrossereads.com

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UWL is one of only 77 non-profit organizations nationwide that received grants totaling more than $1 million for Big Read projects running through June 2017. The goal of Big Reads, according to the NEA, is “to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.”

UWL Assistant Professor of English Kate Parker, one of the grant’s co-authors, expects the book selected, “A Lesson Before Dying,” will do exactly that.

“This is a book about La Crosse, not just Louisiana in the 1940s,” says Parker. “Many of the issues it raises have relevance to what’s going on today in our communities.”

Among the issues raised in the book are: social justice, human rights and dignity, and literacy. Parker encourages avid readers and others to attend the community conversations and author presentations even if they haven’t had an opportunity to read the selected novel. Copies of the book can be checked out at local libraries, or purchased at local bookstores or online.

Another expected benefit of the read is the relationships that it will form. “We expect to see people coming together who don’t normally come together,” says another grant co-author, UWL Assistant Professor of English Bryan Kopp. “Slowing down and reading a book is a great way to connect with one another.”

The grant co-authors say the first community-wide read is setting the stage for La Crosse Reads to become an annual event in the future. La Crosse Public Library staff have embraced the initial read and have already begun planning next year’s event.

Other partners in the project include libraries at UWL, Viterbo University and Western Technical College; Downtown Mainstreet, Inc.; the Pump House Regional Arts Center; area schools; city of La Crosse; La Crosse County Jail; and several local businesses and non-profits.