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Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, Perennial Library, 1990 (c1937), ISBN 0-06-091650-8, $8.95, 207pp.

I think I got too much of a build-up on this novel. That’s the trouble with reading reviews and criticism: sometimes the praise is just too effusive, sometimes the lambasting just too cruel. I like to stumble upon books like Nella Larsen’s Passing with no prior knowledge of it or its reception, because then I am free to decide for myself its value to me. With a novel like this, that has been embraced by so many, to say that you did not care for it is almost like sacrilege. And yet, when it comes down to it, you have to speak your personal opinion. I found a lot of good things in here, but on the whole, I wasn’t taken by it.

The story itself is about Janie Crawford, a young black female in Florida who wants to marry for love, but whose mother forces her into a union with this old man simply because of his economic status. Janie listens to her mother, who tells her that love will come after awhile, but soon discovers that, instead, once the honeymoon is over, what comes is a different sort of treatment. She runs away with a smooth talking city fellow named Jody who has big dreams. His idea is to create a town of all black people. Janie runs off with him and helps him open a store then become mayor of Eatonville. At first, Janie thinks she has found the perfect life, but Jody refuses to acknowledge her, putting her conversely on a pedestal (the Mayor’s wife) and runs her down (embarrassing her skills in the store). When Jody dies, Janie is courted by a young man named Tea Cake. With him, she discovers love. To end there, however, would be a fairy tale, and this is a story where not everyone lives happily ever after.

The book contains a lot of dialect–almost all of the dialogue is in the language of the Florida black community–and after awhile, you get used to it. I mention it because it would likely put some readers off the book.

Hurston also wrote an ethnography of African-American stories and myths called Mules and Men, and I’m much more interested in checking that out than more of her fiction, which, as accomplished as it is, just didn’t appeal to me.

[Finished March 1999]


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