Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Classics Project: The Color Purple

I know I wrote my review of Slaughterhouse Five just yesterday, but I literally read Alice Walker's The Color Purple in two evenings. I had actually been planning to read J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye next, but I was at the train station when I hit the abrupt ending of Slaughterhouse Five. My boyfriend and I had just been in an awesome little bookstore in downtown Denver called The Tattered Cover (check it out!) where I picked up a copy of Ms. Walker's classic for four dollars. So since Bob was still monopolizing my copy of Catcher, I started The Color Purple.

The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a young, bright, abused woman who gets married to spare her sister a life of drudgery and abuse. She and her sister become separated by men and time and continents. In many ways it's a story about a girl who finds what "God" means to her in a life of trials and hardships.

I can see why this book has so often been banned. On the very first page incestuous rape is mentioned casually as a fact of every day life. It goes on to question the idea of "God," the idea of marriage, of love. What does it mean to exist as a black woman in the pre-WWII South? Celie's experiences are heartbreaking, demeaning, intense, and, at times, beautiful. I cannot adequately describe how moving the story is. I can only say that there is a reason I finished it so quickly.

The book itself is an epistolary novel, meaning it is written as a series of letters. For the first half or more of the book, all of these letters are written by Celie and addressed "Dear God." As the story progresses we get to see some of Celie's sister, Nettie, and experience her life. Two very different lives - one in rural Georgia, one in the heart of the African Congo - are juxtaposed to show the growth of each sister. Both grow from young, victimized children to strong, compelling women.

One of the most spectacular elements, at least for me, is the language. Celie writes in a deep southern dialect and with little benefit of education. For most of the book I had to "hear" the words in my head to understand them, and at points, read them aloud. This may have slowed the speed of my reading a bit, but I got into the rhythm of Celie's speech surprisingly easily.

Having grown up in far South East Arkansas (where I was taught in social studies about the War of Northern Aggression), I was very familiar with this speech pattern. Many of the older people in the community spoke the same way as Celie so it was at once startling and comfortable for me. Much to my boyfriend's dismay, I fell back into those speech patterns myself. "What you doin'?" I asked at one point. He just stared up at me in horror.

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect - and one that shows Alice Walker's spectacular skill as a writer - is how organically poetry was woven into what some might think a backwoods, unrefined narrative. The story and the language itself become poetry.

He say, Celie, git the belt. The children be outside the room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That's how come I know trees fear man.

This awareness of the poetic is woven throughout what otherwise could become a depressing tale of oppression. But Alice Walker transcends individual sorrow, exposing the universal threads of womanhood, grief, and survival. This book is stunning. a beautiful and life changing read. I would read it again in a heartbeat.

And don't worry about me writing another Classics Project review tomorrow. I'm starting Anna Karenina and I dare say it'll take me longer than two evenings. Also, if you're interested, there is a wonderful documentary on Alice Walker by PBS's American Masters. You can watch it here.

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