The Short Version: Janie Crawford has come home – and she brings with her a story. It is the story of three marriages, of the discovery of her own self, of the truth of ‘love’, all set on the backdrop of the Florida coast in the 1930s.
The Review: I first read this book as a sophomore in high school. I like to think of myself as an insightful reader and I like to imagine that I was an open and willing one even back into my teenage years. But, as Christopher Hermelin put it on the latest episode of So Many Damn Books (where we discuss this book with chef Evan Hanczor), reading this book now – as adults – drives home the reality that the curriculum in grade school is in no way attempting to foster a love of reading. Because I hated this book in high school, as did most of my friends.
But why did I hate it? I can’t really recall anymore, beyond the remembrance of not at all enjoying the reading experience and the fact that my classmates laughed when Janie shot Tea Cake. Was it because this was a class of all white kids, taught by a white teacher, in a predominantly white suburb of Philadelphia? Perhaps. Was it because the book is expressionistic and written largely in a phonetic patois, difficult to understand at first glance? Maybe. Or was it because a 15-year-old upper-middle-class white boy in the early 2000s probably can’t connect to the story of a forty-something black woman in the 1930s in Florida? Sure – it’s probably a combination of all of those things and more to boot.
Regardless of why I “hated” it then, I’m glad to’ve had the opportunity to revisit it now – because otherwise I’d’ve remained a goddamn fool, telling people that I hated this masterpiece of absolute beauty and power. Because that’s what it is. I think the term masterpiece gets thrown around a lot and I think that it means different things to different people at different times – you’ll note, if you scroll all the way down, that I’m not giving this a 6 or anything like that – but I do think that, in terms of context and subject and canon, there’s no other way to describe this book.
Hurston sets up a loose framing device: a middle-aged woman has walked back into town – her town, it would seem – in overalls and messy hair. Her husband is nowhere to be seen. The other various old folks of the town watch and comment and this woman’s best friend runs on after her. As the two sit up at Janie’s house, she tells the story of her life so far and what brought her back to this town and this moment. If you wanted to be loosey-goosey about it, you could say that this book is the story of a woman finding herself – and, largely, that’s what it is. Janie, as a young girl, is married off to a man who she doesn’t even remotely love or who doesn’t seem to have any love in him at all. She runs away, after several years, and marries another man who has all the charm in the world – but who, for all that charm, turns out to be a jealous, conceited jackass. When this man dies, she figures to set alone for a while… until a younger man with spirit and love in his heart comes across her path and the two come together happily.
It’s a rather traditional story of seeking and ultimately finding love, of knowing what it is you want from your partner (and, indeed, from your life). What makes it powerful is Hurston’s inimitable voice and her downright magical way with words. Love has rarely been as correctly rendered on the page as it is here – largely because love is the kind of emotion and sensation that is ultimately far greater than any words could hope to contain, but also because it’s different for everyone. And yet! Hurston has captured the reality in a way that, I think, does express it for everyone. Or at least she expresses a sort of platonic ideal of love, which is a slightly different but no less potent thing.
The novel is also a potent expression of black identity, in a way that I almost certainly didn’t comprehend as a high schooler and in a way that I probably can’t even fully comprehend right now. There is a pride of self amongst these characters and the exceptions – Mrs. Turner, for example – only serve to highlight the potency of the likes of Janie, Tea Cake, Joe Starks, and the rest. Eatonville has the distinction of being the first (or reportedly the first) black town established in the United States and it’s also Hurston’s hometown – so as these characters found the town and establish their lives within it, we see a people owning their own destinies in a way that had previously been impossible to imagine. With racism running rampant in American culture today, it’s an especially potent time to revisit a novel like this – because we can’t be better to each other unless we spend some time trying.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. A classic that deserved a second chance – and it’s only thanks to Evan Hanczor that I gave it one. Whatever your impressions of this book might be from your school days, forget them and come to the book a-fresh. Hurston’s story of a woman fighting for love might seem ordinary on the surface, but it’s full of some of the most beautiful prose about life, love, and identity that’s maybe ever been put to paper. The novel is funny, sad, uplifting, and passionately human – and that’s what we mean when we say it’s a classic.