Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Their Eyes Were Watching God

This was another book I had little knowledge of when deciding to add it to my "to-read" list. I'd heard of the title, learned it was an Oprah's Book Club choice, and saw it at Sam's Club which inspired me to put a hold on it at the library, but I didn't actually know what it was about.

For that reason, I was a little nervous when I read the foreward and the critic walked me through its rediscovery in the 60s (it was written in 1937) and subsequent controversy over its worthiness as a part of African American literature. Yikes. What's a white, middle class, northerner to do? I prepared myself to read with a sheltered caution.

Honestly, I don't understand the controversy. I don't think it white washes over the ugly aspects of the south in the 1930s, but it also doesn't dwell on every injustice or the blatant unfairness of the times. It simply tells the story as is. Perhaps the African American community fears fingers and voices pointing to the book saying, "See? It wasn't so bad? Your history isn't all oppression and misery." If that is or was the case, I think its safe to say that while the Zora Neale Hurston's portrayal of African American history doesn't attempt the heights of horror of, say, a Toni Morrison novel, it also doesn't give the reader a rosy tinted view of their history either.

The main character, Janie, is an African American teenage girl, raised by a grandmother who, while a slave, was raped and impregnated by a white man. The grandmother bore a daughter, Janie's mother, who, later, was also raped by a peer while in school, which left Janie's mother traumatized and uninterested in her baby. Left to be raised by her grandmother, Janie's childhood and rearing was old-fashioned and she was left with a limited understanding of the world, especially the male/female romantic relationship. Janie does have a vivid experience involving watching pear blossoms being pollinated by bees, which leaves her yearning for romantic love.

Convinced by her grandmother that love can develop after marriage, Janie marries an older farmer who is looking for a hard working wife to help take care of his land. After a short amount of time, Janie realizes there are no pear blossoms there, and that this life does not make her happy. One day, while doing a chore, she comes upon a charismatic man named Jody, who dresses and acts like a free white man, much different than the other men she has been exposed to, and is on his way to live in an all-black community, Eatonville.

Jody smooth talks Janie into going with him and she leaves the farm and her husband in search of her pear blossom. Unfortunately for Janie, this new opportunity doesn't present happiness either and after 20 years or so of marriage and being a trophy to her powerful husband who became Mayor of Eatonville, she finally becomes a widow and experiences independence for the first time. With that independence, she meets and marries the much younger Tea Cake, her pear blossom, and begins to understand and enjoy the inner person she always knew she was.

The power of this novel comes from the phonetic dialogue which transports you to the black south, and the honest expose of the attitudes and expectations of blacks during this period of our country's history. I feel that Janie went through a great deal of growth and discovery and is an excellent example of the silent and dignified power women have and have always had, even when its ability to express itself is limited.

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