The story of Luke Jackson, a.k.a “Cool Hand Luke,” is said to be based on personal experiences of Donn Pearce, the book's author. Following time in military service as a Merchant Marine, Pearce became involved in counterfeiting and safe-cracking. His crimes eventually lead to a short prison sentence, working on a chain gang.
Luke's nonchalant ways, his refusal to acknowledge pecking order of his peers, or to submit to authority make him a victim-hero. He does have a certain charisma and talent in ways, such as the ability to play a mean banjo as well as superior competitive eating skills. My sympathizes were with him when he missed his mother's funeral. This sadness seemed to have triggered his need to escape. When his attempts are successful the morale of his prison family is heightened as they think of him. They seem to be living vicariously by imagining his exploits as a freeman. Alas, freedom doesn't last and Luke is recaptured, then subjected to violent abuse as an example to all.
I thought it was coincidental that I began this novel after recent current events revolving around the saga of escapees from an upstate New York prison. While reading I reflected on the day-by-day reports of these fugitives and remembered a song by Styx (band from my high school days) entitled “Renegade.” As I often do when reading, I tend to lose myself in the life of characters' stories and this experience-taking leads me to consider many things I may never have thought about before. Cool Hand Luke inspired me to think about reform in prisons and prisoner treatment. I even found an old film about a true-life prisoner, Robert Burns (not the Scottish poet), entitled “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” Life on a chain gang must have been horrendous to consider crawling through thick brush, wading swamps, outsmarting blood hounds, and to have feelings of always being hunted.
Join the Centennial Book Discussion at 6:00 p.m. in Hotel Tavern on July 27, to share your insights and ideas about this iconic novel. A Centennial Matinee featuring the film version of this book takes place in the library at 2:00 p.m. on August 1.