Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Had seen her recommended many times, in a variety of sources, but had never read anything of hers. Her story is an interesting one. Became famous as part of the "Harlem Rennaissance", she fell from favor in the 50's (and became obscure during the 60's and 70's--until her "rediscovery" by Alice Walker in 1975)--largely, it seems, because she wasn't "political" enough in her writing. She wanted to tell the story of the black man and woman--thinking it had enough dignity in its own right. For her, it didn't have to rail against the white man continually, defining blacks only as they stood in regard to white society. She also had the temerity to write in Southern black vernacular, letting the blacks "speak for themselves." Other black writers were scandalized by this--and felt it gave white people even more ammunition to think blacks were stupid and uncultured. Hurston thought blacks had a culture, and one worth immortalizing in her literature. She also did collections of black mythology, stories, songs, poems.
Their Eyes is the story of a woman, Janie, and her marriages, life and love. She has been raised by her grandmother, a freed slave, who can only conceive of Janie's life as "safe" if she is married to a stable man. So Janie is married off to an older man she doesn't love. She eventually runs away with a sweet talker, Joe Starks, who wants to be a big man, and wills himself into the position of mayor, store-owner, postmaster, etc. of a black town in Florida. Though he sweet-talked Janie, and probably loved her in his way, he has ideas of what is right and proper for a woman "of her station." She is his possession, his trophy, and his victim when he can't figure out how else to treat her.
She stays with Joe until his death, but eight months later meets Tea Cake, a younger man who loves her for who she is. Tea Cake wins her heart and takes her off to the 'Glades to work the bean fields and gamble. Her two years with him are not without problems (he is a gambler and there is one incident of the beginning of a flirtation with another woman, which Janie quashes immediately). But they are the happiest years of her life--years where there is food, and laughter, and love, and companionship, and of someone thinking that she is worth love and attention.
The ending is dramatic--I couldn't imagine where the story was meandering around to. The last 50 pages read like 5. The book is sad, but hopeful.
The book is written beautifully, as well. The narrator writes (speaks?) in a beautiful, languid standard English. The dialogue is in heavy Southern, black vernacular. If you are not Southern, I think it would take a great deal of getting used to. But it is mesmerizing. And, I think, it speaks to the diversity within black life--not either/or, but both/and.
I understand that Oprah has financed a new movie version of the book. I will be anxious to see how they portray it. There is only ONE sex scene in the whole book, and it is mild by today's standards. From what I understand, the movie is billed as "steamy" which wouldn't be particularly true to the book, though of course, there is an undercurrent of passion in the writing about Tea Cake and Janie.
Anyway, here's a little piece of the non-vernacular writing. Mrs. Turner is a black woman who is very light--who has a straight nose (her own description) and thin lips. She despises blacks who are darker than she. She loves Janie, because Janie has fairer skin and long, beautiful, straight hair:
Once having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable she would worship there. It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.
Mrs. Turner, like all other believers had built an altar to the unattainable--Caucasian characteristics for all. Her god would smite her, would hurl her from pinnacles and lose her in deserts, but she would not forsake his altars. Behind her crude words was a belief that somehow she and others through worship could attain her paradise--a heaven of straighthaired, thin-lipped, high-nose boned white seraphs. The physical impossibilities in no way injured faith. That was the mystery and mysteries are the chores of gods. Beyond her faith was a fanaticism to defend the altars of her god. It was distressing to emerge from her inner temple and find those black desecrators howling with laughter before the door. Oh, for an army, terrible with banners and swords!
Agree or disagree, it is pretty powerful stuff.