It’s been about a month and a half since I started my quest to catch up on classic novels I’ve always lied about reading. The category of my first installation of the Shameful Book Club is “Southern Novels.” In the 1.5 months that I have been reading these (among others), I have knocked out The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Color Purple, and about half of The Sound and the Fury.
I enjoyed Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn quite a lot. I (admittedly) listened to it on audiobook, read by Elijah Wood (delightful), and experienced more than one occasion of pulling up to a stop sign with the windows down and having passerbys side-eye me for the amount of racial profanity coming from my car stereo. Regardless, I found Huck Finn very funny and insightful. It had the excitement of a child’s adventure, but the social weight of a critical work of fiction. In a way it’s America’s Odyssey, and I felt like I was reading/listening to something that was a mashup of The Goonies and Mud. It’s a snap shot of America and a very particular time and place that deserves to be preserved for many reasons (some of those being cautionary).
We learn truths through Huck’s naturally pure sense of morality. His gut goes against all the bullshit he was taught about society and race, even though he truly believes he is doing the wrong thing by going against these norms (racism and extreme religion being some of those “norms”). And while he chastises himself for protecting Jim over and over again, his natural instinct to help a black man find freedom is a clear indication that all humans are equal and deserve basic human rights. This is obviously an important book that can teach kids a lot about our history and what it means to follow your own heart, and I believe it would do more good being read in every class room rather than being banned from schools and libraries. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. It’s hard for me to beat the Thug Notes episode for this, however, so enjoy!
The Color Purple by Alice Walker is my favorite so far. It was an incredibly fast read, being short and epistolary, but it hit me hard. Being a white middle class woman born in the late 20th century in Ithaca, New York, I have very little knowledge of the horrible things women of color had to deal with in the rural south during the depression (or during any time, for that matter). Rape, incest, violent abuse, a culture of extreme patriarchy, unjust treatment by the law, limited education, and a constant voice telling them they are worthless. It was devastating, and yet managed to have a happy ending! The women are strong and strive for more, even though they’ve been told their entire lives by society that there is no more for them. We follow protagonist Celie throughout her life as she is raped, given up for marriage to man she barely knows, beaten, verbally and mentally abused, and made to feel extreme loneliness. But we also see her slowly learn that she is worth love and happiness, and that she can take charge of her own life.
We also follow her sister Nettie as she gets involved in missionary work in Africa. One of my favorite parts of the novel was hearing her complicated feelings about Africa and the people there. Again, being white and from New York, I have very limited knowledge about the relationship between African American’s who could potentially trace their family back to Africa and the Africans who may have sold their relatives to slavers. That was absolutely fascinating and heartbreaking in its own right.
I also really enjoyed the focus on female relationships throughout the novel. Celie’s connection to her sister and later to the sexy and confident Shug help her pull herself up. She learns to love herself through the love of other women. This theme is constant throughout the novel and throughout all the female characters and their relationships with one another. The Color Purple was such an emotional roller coaster, and I’m actually mad I didn’t read it earlier in my life. I think it would be very important for all women to read in their teens while they are developing their self-esteem and their relationships with other women.
Now for The Sound and the Fury. Like I said, I’m not finished so I can’t give my full thoughts on it yet, but damn. I barely made sense of Benjy’s point of view, but I don’t think I’m alone there. I think I have the potential to enjoy this novel, but I have to get over my frustration with it first.
I’ll check in again next month with my quick thoughts on (hopefully) The Sound and The Fury, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Grapes of Wrath!