Saturday, May 24, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Yikes! It’s almost June and I’ve only reviewed one book for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I decided I’d better stop slacking off or I’ll never get that challenge completed. A book that has been on my shelf for many years (TBR-pile challenge!!), Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was my pick for the twentieth century classic.

The book is constructed so that Janie Crawford (who just returned to the town she walked away from two years earlier in the company of a man twelve years her junior) tells her story to a sympathetic friend. She knows the rest of the town is gossiping eagerly, gleefully certain the young man abandoned her, running off with her money. But no. The man is dead. Janie settles in to explain.

Her story begins when she is a teenager, dreaming of love. Her grandmother, who raised her, is terrified that Janie will end up downtrodden like her mother, like any other pretty girl with nothing but her looks to recommend her. So her grandmother sees her safely married off to a significantly older man with property. Janie tries to love him, but fails.

One day, a well-dressed sweet-talking man passing through the property on his way to something better happens by. This man is convinced that he can make something of himself in a town in Florida built and owned all by blacks. He decides he wants Janie by his side. He persuades her to run off with him.

This man dazzles the people of Eatonville, Florida with his take charge ways. Before long, he has set up a store, organized the town, and gotten himself named mayor. This makes Janie Mrs. Mayor. But he has set ideas about the way Mrs. Mayor must behave. Janie can’t be herself. It doesn’t take her long to realize this isn’t love either.

There isn’t much she can do but suppress her unhappiness. But this husband is also older than she is. Eventually, he dies. Janie is free and she is now a fairly wealthy woman.

Enter Tea Cake. He’s a wanderer, a gambler, a charmer–and he is twelve years younger than the widowed Janie. All the single men for miles around have had their eyes on Janie, for her money and for her beauty–even though she’s approaching forty! But it’s Tea Cake who steals her heart. He says he’ll provide for her. He’s not after her money. And off they go.

They head off to the Everglades where they plant and pick beans. It’s hard work, but for the first time in her life, Janie is happy. She’s in love.

This does not end well. In an exciting and tragic conclusion, Tea Cake dies, which brings us back to the beginning–Janie telling her story to Phoeby, explaining that Tea Cake is dead, but also explaining that she did find the love she was searching for all her life. She doesn’t care what all the gossipers in the town are going to say.

So, take that bare bones plot outline and wreath it in dialogue that is rich in period and cultural dialect. Put the characters in beautifully described settings and then populate those settings with abundant lively characters that jump out at you. Some of the secondary characters are more lushly described even than Tea Cake or Janie.

The middle bit of the book did drag a bit. Some of the conversations on the porch that Janie found so amusing, I found a bit tedious. However, that might be partly due to my lingering reading slump problems.

This is a wonderful story of love and of resilience. Janie is, after all, a survivor. She was able to hold onto the memory of what she wanted and she had to courage to reach for it when she saw it, despite what her peers would think.

Not only a Back to the Classics Challenge book (hosted by Books and Chocolate) but this is also a TBR pile challenge book (hosted by Bookish.) I’m behind on that one too. I need a long vacation!