Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were
Watching God
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston

So, this is another gushing post where I tell you just to go out and get a copy of this book, now, and read it, now.

The book starts with Janie, our protagonist  returning home after some time away. The townspeople watch her walk to her house, gossiping, wondering where she's been, what she's been up to. Of course, it's only her best friend Pheoby who actually goes to the house to welcome Janie back home. She's as curious as anyone about Janie. She feeds Janie, and in return is told her story.
Pheoby's hungry listening helped Janie to tell her story. So she went on thinking back to her young years and explaining them to her friend in soft, easy phrases while all around the house, the night time put on flesh and blackness. 
There are quotable passages on nearly every page. Beautiful, lush, evocative, language everywhere. This book is known for Hurston's use of dialect, and it is noticeable and distinct. She contrasts the colloquial with the ethereal in a way that has to be experienced for yourself. 

I read this book in high school, and I just couldn't get it through my thick skull. Back then, I had no real understanding about systemic, institutionalized racism or sexism. My English teacher tried to introduce us to literature that would expose us to these ideas, but without the solid historical background, and maturity to critically think about them, they were hopelessly lost on 16 year old me. The most I gleaned was that it was a local story - the title comes from Janie's experience living through a hurricane. Though the book doesn't explicitly mention it, it is based on the devastating 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. This storm was the second deadliest in United States history, and 75% of those who died were poor migrant farm workers, mostly African Americans.

Here are a couple pictures I took several years ago as I happened across the mass grave site used to bury the people of color who perished during the storm:
   Site finally receives a marker.
Wide view of the site. 

While the storm and its aftermath are an integral park of the book, it is not the whole story. This is Janie's story, through and through. She is a remarkable woman, who tries to follow society's rules and still find her happiness, until she realizes that just isn't going to work for her. Through her tale, you can see the limits placed on women like her, and how far we've come - but how far we yet have to go.

Want more like this? Try:  
  • "The Wrong They Could Not Bury", Dave Scheiber. It's not a book, but read this short article that talks more about the efforts of the African American community to have the mass grave site properly marked and recognized.
  • Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston. Ms. Hurston's autobiography, which includes portions about writing Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Sister CarrieTheodore Dreiser. Another great book with a strong, unconventional female lead.

6 comments:

Vasilly said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed this! I read it a few years ago. You're right, the writing is so lush that readers can mark passages on almost every page. Now I want to reread this! Have you read Zadie Smith's essay on the book? It's very good.

MJ said...

@Vasilly: I haven't read Zadie Smith's essay (um, I actually haven't read *anything* by her *headdeask*). I will be on the lookout for it, though!

I don't blame you for wanting to give this one a reread. It is so, so good. The bit in the beginning where Janie is under the tree? Magic.

Heather said...

I love this book. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

thecuecard said...

Yeah it's been a long while since I read this but recall really liking it. Nice post

Shannon @ Reading Has Purpose said...

wow. I didn't realize that about the storm. I'm going to do more research on that.

MJ said...

@Shannon: It is super depressing, but something that more people need to know about.