Ernest J. Gaines was born on a Louisiana plantation in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. He began working the fields when he was nine, digging potatoes for fifty cents a day. He spent most of his childhood with his aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, a determined woman who had no legs but managed to take care of her family. Gaines considered her the most courageous person he ever knew. At age fifteen, Gaines moved to Vallejo, California, joining his parents who had moved there during World War II. In Vallejo, Gaines discovered the public library. Since he could not find many books written about the experience of African Americans, he decided to write his own. A few years later, he enrolled at San Francisco State University and took writing courses at Stanford University.
In 1964 Gaines published his first novel, Catherine Carmier. He published the novel Of Love and Dust three years later, followed by a short story collection entitled Bloodline (1968) and another entitled A Long Day in November (1971). He received little attention for these efforts, but felt happy about his progress as a writer. In 1971 Gaines completed one of his most famous novels, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The novel follows the life of a fictional woman, Jane Pittman, who is born a slave and lives to see the Black Power movement of the 1960s. After the critical and financial success of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines published several more novels on the topic closest to his own heart: the black communities of Louisiana. The most successful of these was A Lesson Before Dying, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and, in 1993, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.