Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Color Purple

by Alice Walker

Celie, just 14 years old when the book opens, tells God (or her diary, or herself), of how she has been raped, abused, and twice impregnated by her father. When she gives birth, he takes the children away, then marries her off to a man who is so cold and uncaring that he is referred to only as “Mr.” Her husband attempts to seduce, then drives off, Celie’s only friend, her sister Nettie. Celie becomes both unwilling wife and reluctant mother figure to Mr’s feckless son Harpo, but her life is as drab and lacking in love as a farm mule’s. Her life changes when Mr’s mistress, the singer Shug Avery, comes into her life. At first cold, Shug is later charmed by Celie’s kindness and shows Celie that she is also a woman deserving of love and respect. Celie is eventually able to say, famously, “I may be black, I may be poor, I maybe a woman, and I may even be ugly! But thank God I'm here." Her renaissance and new-found self-esteem throws the household into turmoil, but it also makes the men take a second look at how they run their lives. There are ups and downs after that, of course – this isn’t a book with easy resolutions – Nettie is found and lost again, Shug leaves to go on tour and finds new love, Harpo’s headstrong wife leaves him, then is imprisoned – but Celie now has dreams and hopes now, and can find the strength to face challenges and loss.

I found this to be a moving story, brilliantly told. Walker is telling a powerful story full of tragedy and redemption and heartbreaking loss, but she doesn't play cheap with the reader's emotions (I take some elements of the ending to be somewhat allegorical). Bad things happen to good people, and all the good people can do is find the strength to carry on. This strength comes, Walker seems to say, from deep love for one another, and (to a lesser extent) a network of friends and family who will fight for you. Celie is an astounding character, telling her story plainly, without complaint of the injustice, even with wry humor at times (especially when discussing the men in her life). She stands, I think, for the notion that one’s past doesn’t have to shape one’s present, or one’s attitude.

four stars

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