Friday, March 11, 2016

What makes a book GREAT: a look at THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD

In addition to #OABOOKCLUB, which is reading EMMA by JANE AUSTEN this month, I also sometimes take part in a local meet-up to have dessert and talk literature with some lovely ladies. Last month we read THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD by ZORA NEALE HURSTON.

It's an amazing book, and I want to talk about what makes it great, what made Alice Walker tromp through an old, snake-infested cemetery looking for the author's unmarked gravestone so she could replace it with a decent memorial, and what made some old, out-of-print novel make a comeback so many years after the author's death.
“It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds ...
'For me, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD is one of the very greatest American novels of the 20th century. It is so lyrical it should be sentimental; it is so passionate it should be overwrought, but it is instead a rigorous, convincing and dazzling piece of prose, as emotionally satisfying as it is impressive. There is no novel I love more.' Zadie Smith

Reading Zora Hurston's book was a rich cultural experience for me, one that made me laugh and cry with the people. 

It was culturally rich because she put so much of her own cultural heritage into it. Parts of it even seem autobiographical. For instance, there's a line where one of the main characters jokes that Janie's greatest sin is taking a few years off her age, and that never hurt anybody. This little line has more meaning when you realize that Zora Hurston herself took ten years off her life at the age of 26 so she could go back to high school. She never added those years back on, but from thence forth was ten years younger than herself. You can imagine that the maturity she took with her into her education gave a dawn-light to every master and principle she studied, and made her appreciate the impact she could have on the world through writing. 

Part of the cultural richness is the language:

"Then you must tell 'em dat love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore."
“If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don't keer if you die at dusk. It's so many people never seen de light at all.”
Part of it is the way the characters interact with one another in the community, mostly around the store porch where gossip, philosophical debate, and fighting all shape the relationships and thus the society in which Janie lives. When she's allowed to partake in these shaping conversations vs. when she feels silenced by a mayor-husband, that makes all the difference in Janie's happiness and sense of purpose. 

“...she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see...”
In the beginning, it's the silly stories and this, for me, alien culture that keep the book from dragging during a time of Janie's life when she's really not allowed to be all that interesting. The ripening wisdom she attains, even through the suffocating ages of oppression she chooses to endure, turns her into someone you can't help but love.

“She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.”

It's in the poetry of the book, foolish toward the beginning, and then wise toward the end, that you see Janie's character develop best.

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.”
“Oh to be a pear tree – any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!”
"She didn't read books so she didn't know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop."
“Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.”
“Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

Race was naturally woven through the story, but the people were just people. They could grow or stagnate according to their own choices.

While there were commentaries from different characters on race and racial divisions, the characters themselves were drawn as simply human- all of them. You could feel the regret in each character when he or she acted against conscience. You could see the very human justification happening in their minds and hearts, and occasionally one or another would choose to change despite his self-justification. A triumph of humanity! The most tragic character, in my view, was the one who wouldn't be changed. I won't give it away here, but Janie laments at the end of his life that he wanted to change the world but wouldn't have the world change him. 

Each story surprised me with its genuine quality, no matter how bizarre (vulture parson at a carcass funeral). 

There's a bizarre story about a mule carcass being dragged out of town ceremoniously, which ends with vultures presiding over their own sort of ceremony, complete with a vulture parson who does an investigation of the carcass before every other vulture can partake. As silly as this all sounds, it has a poetic aspect in the writing of Zora Hurston, and it makes you feel it all really happened.

I was tickled by the personalities brushing up against each other, for good or ill. What really made the stories was the way the people reacted to one another, like the lazy townsfolk who greet Janie's second husband with surprise when he asks to see their mayor. They hadn't even gotten up to thinking about electing a mayor, much less imagining they'd be allotted a post office by the government for their little not-quite-a-town. Janie's and Jody's coming to Eatonville flips the town upside down, or right-side up! And while many of the people respond gratefully, others are jealous and petty from the start. 

Later on when Janie has completely different adventures with her third husband and she's fully invested in her life, she doesn't seem as affected by the foibles of the other characters. That's part of her later-life wisdom, to let everyone be who they are. It's in this part of the book that I really started to enjoy myself and let the lessons of human weakness and human strength and human connection just sink into my soul. 

Most of all, the poetry at certain parts elevated my spirit. I felt improved for having read it.

Beautiful language is only half of poetry. The other half is depth of meaning. Zora Neale Hurston is a true poet. 

"There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought."
"Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them."
 So, to sum up, WHAT MAKES A BOOK GREAT?
  • Rich cultural backdrop that is alive and breathing through characters and community
  • Poetry, and tone, that evolves with the character through her arc
  • The people aren't stereotypes, but regular people
  • Each story feels true, no matter how bizarre, and lessons of human nature and connection come through in the narrative
  • The reader's spirit is elevated, her life better for having read it

What do you think it is that makes a book truly great?
For more of the story of Alice Walker and the cemetery or Zora Hurston and the missing ten years on her age, check out the book from the library and read the forewords and afterwords. 

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