Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Controlled Chaos – Lucy Knisley (2019)

As an ongoing reading fan of Lucy Knisley’s graphic novel/sequential art work, I was happy to discover that she had recently released an update to her autobiographical books with the latest news about her getting pregnant and then successfully having that offspring.

What I really appreciate about Knisley is that she has no pretensions about being anything but normal – her perspective on her own life is refreshingly down-to-earth and, unusually for a graphic novel of this genre, she is not writing to heal a personal or familial trauma (apart from this getting-pregnant thing).

Plus, Knisley seems to be a very curious person (similar to how I am) and so you never quite now what to expect for inclusion in her graphic novels. (Question: is a graphic novel still a graphic “novel” if it’s true and autobiographical? Or does it then become a “graphic autobiography”? …)

At this point in her life, Knisley has now been married for a few years and she and her husband, John, decide that now is the time to start a family. It’s this topic around which the book revolves, from the overall preparation for it (she researches in much the same over-the-top-but-fascinating-to-me levels) and her work is as honest as she can be in how much she tells the reader about herself and about her life. (When I have finished one of her books, I feel as though I’ve just been having an enjoyable conversation with a good friend at a coffee shop or similar. She’s that relatable.)

So, in this particular volume, Knisley not only tracks her various attempts to get pregnant (not as easy as it sounds) while also relating a connected and wide-ranging litany of background info about women’s reproductive health, including its history and some of the science behind it as well as recounting the more personal side of things. It’s an effective mix of personal and impersonal and it’s a recipe that really works.

This blend of personal perspectives and more objective information also enables the reader to feel invested in Knisley’s reproductive life – when they have difficulty getting (and staying) pregnant, my heart went out to them at how heart-broken they were. How could something so “easy” as getting pregnant become so difficult for these two people (and others)? It’s actually a riveting story and one that I read through all in one go. (I had to know how things concluded in the end!)

Knisley presents scientific facts and debunks superstitions in a respectful manner, really saving the emotional approach for her own personal side of life, and so this makes her an effective and credible teacher for this information, some of which was new to me (and may be for you too). In fact, I really think Knisley would be a good writer for a sequential art-take on some harder science topics, if she ever decides to travel in that direction. I’d read that work, for certain. (Are you reading this, Lucy? You know. In all your spare time! Ha.)

So, much like her other reads, Knisley’s latest volume is an excellent addition to her ever-growing oeuvre. I hope the fact that she now has a toddler doesn’t signal the end of her graphic-novel days, but fortunately, there was a hint at the end of this book that there may be more to come: “It all ends right now, with a new beginning…”

Fingers crossed that Knisley continues to refreshingly document those early days of motherhood that lay ahead of her!

Other (highly recommended) Lucy Knisley reads include the following. Your best bet would be to start at the beginning and read them chronologically:

A Book on Medical Discourses in Two Parts – Rebecca Crumpler, M.D. (1883)

My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.

Traveling around the web, as one does, I came across an interesting nugget of American history when I met Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American female physician in the U.S. when she graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1860. (She was also the college’s only African-American graduate.)

Consider this statistic: there were only 54,543 physicians in the whole of the country in 1860. Only 300 of those physicians were women and Crumpler was the only African-American female physician. (And, in fact, as late as 1920, there were still only 65 African-American female docs in the entire country. I wonder what the stats are now…

(ETA: Only 4 percent of practicing physicians in 2016 are African-American, most graduating from HBSUs. Only 2 percent of nation’s physicians are female African-Americans. Female physicians now make up 34 percent of the whole physician population, but are still underpaid compared with men (64 cents for every dollar a man earns). Overall population of US (now) is 15 percent black (2013, US Census Bureau).)

Back to Crumpler: Crumpler was a remarkable woman and this is thought to be the very first medical text by any African-American author.

Imagine the U.S. as the country as it was then when Crumpler was getting her medical education as a “doctress” (as the title says). How very courageous and determined she was:

  • 1860 – Crumpler graduates from the medical college as a “doctress”.
  • 1863: US Emancipation Proclamation (meant that slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States).
  • 1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all states. Establishment of Freedman Bureau (agency to help millions of black slaves and poor whites in the South after Civil War.) (Actually, Crumpler and her hub moved to Virginia to work for the bureau and “more than 30,000 colored” after the war.)
  • 1868 – 14th Amendment secured American citizenship for African-Americans.
  • 1870 – 15th Amendment secured voting rights for African-Americans (on paper)

But obvs slavery still happening. (Look at Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston (2018) which covers the life of Oluale Kossula who arrived in the U.S. from West Africa where he had been captured as part of the slave trade in 1860, same year as Crumpler is attending her first year at the medical college.)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, doctress.

So, absolutely loads to think about with this nonfiction read, and that’s not even getting to the actual contents just yet!

Since this book is more of a how-to manual for the healthcare of people (not just African-Americans although they may well have been the main (and only audience for this text), I’ve put together a few notes on her healthcare guidance during this late Victorian period in case you’re curious. (Crumpler was also more than likely to only have been allowed access to care for the African-American populations as well…)

It’s in a bullet list since that seemed the easiest way to present such disparate info:

Baby health advice (under 5s):

One of the main baby healthcare advice chapters is titled this: Necessity of Agreeable and Soothing Surroundings. It’s meant to be in reference to infants but it certainly works for me as well. 🙂

All loud talking or laughing should be strictly prohibited. To insure this, no sly jokes should be indulged in by anyone present; for by so doing convulsions of an alarming nature may be brought on. “  (Chapter 5)

If the baby has a rattling or wheezing noise in its throat, Mrs. Crumpler recommends using a real feather (that has been wetted to tamp the down) to tickle the back of the tongue to make the child cough or gag… Don’t give the baby “soot tea”, by any means.

Saffron tea is really crocus tea?  And was popular for baby’s poop problems?

Don’t give infants a “little weak toddy” to “bring up wind and make them sleep”. It can cause intoxication and then a “fearful attack of purging”. Plus it may “inculcate a desire for tippling in many of our weak-minded youth”.

Later on: watch out if giving your baby any alcohol: it “tends to stunt the intellect and dwarf the stature of the youth of our land…”  

And no oysters for the young one: they are “most dangerous”. A broiled lamb chop of beef would be fine to give the baby though, as support for the diet of mother’s milk though. (They help to prevent “cholera of infants at the breast, especially in our crowded cities”.)

And too much soda (i.e. in making breads) makes your baby bald.

And don’t overfeed or do the “coarse habit of ‘stuffing’ babes, to avoid frequent feeding of them” – the habit needs to “vanish like dew before the noonday sun” …

Children who eat candy are also at risk of developing “dwarfed statures”… but kids will also be troubled with worms at the same time (due to the candy).

If your child is teething, “the greater mischief is done to the whole nervous system by the unnatural but ancient custom of pressing and rubbing gums – it is possible to trace the cause of insanity to this pernicious custom

Teething and not wearing shoes in puddles are believed to be a combo that directly cause lung fever (another name for pneumonia) in infants. If your child does get pneumonia, the best treatment is “patient watchfulness, pure air and absolute quiet”.

Apparently, babies have always been tough to get to sleep. “Many children screamed with fright at the noise created to get them to sleep”… What were the family doing to make the kids scream when they’re trying to get them to go to sleep? The mind boggles…

Once you do have your child sleeping, don’t let your baby sleep too long in soiled clothes: it can cause “soft bones, enlarged joints, inverted feet, flattened back-heads, sickening sores, dropsy, blindness or numerous ills”…

If you are a family of “moderate means” and you are not able to keep more than one fire going in your house during the cold season, taking a baby from a hot room to a colder one can cause frequent and severe colds… So, try to live with all your rooms on the same floor in your tenement to avoid (or mitigate) this problem and help the heat (from your one fire) spread throughout the house more evenly…

If your baby does has a lot of snot in his/her nose, try to unstop it with goose oil on a feather. But – be gentle. If you’re not careful, you can break the baby’s nose and that causes cancer. (What?)

Reading for kids is also dangerous:
Can you not cut short the certain destruction that awaits your sons and daughters, through the influence of impressions gained by the constant perusal of fictitious, and in many cases, corrupt library books?

For a breast-feeding mother:

If the mother’s nipple [for breastfeeding] is not prominent for the baby to suck, “a friendly adult or child could soon draw out the nipple by sucking so that the babe can get hold…” !!

(Just try not to do this when one’s mouth is full of snuff as it can cause other health problems (including “instant death”) for el bebe who breastfeeds immediately after this.)

If a new mom is waiting for her milk to “drop”, watch out: “diarrhea, convulsion, or even insanity may be brought on through the means of any excitement whatever” unless you’re careful… Diarrhea is also caused by “emptiness” in a baby (or a baby being hungry).

Don’t drink a glass of iced water when your baby is breastfeeding or this could happen: “the babe was seized with rigid convulsions and dropped from the breast” while the mother became “almost helpless with fright”…  But some quick-thinking from Mrs. Crumpler with a tub of hot water and some mustard managed to save the day… Phew.

Do try to avoid cholera if you can:

There was a whole chapter on the issue of child/infant starvation – it must have been a huge problem for the many poor families… Plus, failure-to-thrive (or malnourishment) was also seen as an early symptom of cholera in children (and cholera was one of the largest causes of infant mortality in those days)…

Cholera could also be caused by the mothers adding in a mixed or meat and veg diet too early after the birth of a child. (Poor mothers! They get blamed for everything!)

Cholera also increases the risk of having a “hair worm” which had been noticed to “infest the throat of some patients”. (Woah. What is that “hair worm” thing?)

And what is the cause of infantile cholera? No one really knows at that time, but Mrs. Crumpler swears that it’s not contagious but does offer this nugget: if you’re in a crowded space in the middle of a cholera epidemic, it’s best to leave if you can. Poverty, “wretchedness” and crime spread cholera.

And who’s responsible for all this?…

Places a heavy blame on mothers to “make a little sacrifice for the sake of equipping the mind” and look after their children better… Also, the child studying too hard can endanger your child’s health.

Mothers should learn more about health and prevention of illness, and get this: Crumpler, unsurprisingly, is pro-women’s vote. (But this wouldn’t happen until 1965!)

(But she does earnestly wish that mothers would try harder to not give their children to the alms houses… “Our women work hard, seemingly…” ooh. Them’s fighting words.)

Crumpler also strikes a critical note when she reports that women “appear to shrink from any responsibilities demanding patience and sacrifice”… Yikes.

She also blames the declining mortality in the “colored population of Boston” on “neglect to guard against the changes of the weather.’’

Advice for women’s health in general:

Exercising during your period will cause you to go barren, have ovarian inflammation, dropsy or consumption. (Periods also called “bringing on the turns”).

Monthly cramps are caused (and worsened by) having cold and/or wet feet (or even when sweeping the floor). Interestingly, another household task (sewing at a treadle sewing machine) also causes vaginal ulcers (mainly from getting frustrated with the machine itself). (This, although very serious stuff, cracked me up at the time since I remember frustrations when I was learning to use my mum’s treadle sewing machine. Not sure about the vaginal ulcers but definitely caused me some strife!)

Poverty, with chastity, is an enviable condition.

Menopause is worsened by drinking ice-water (which, in fact, could cause paralysis) and helped by “securing cheerful exercise for the mind, with an abundance of outdoor scenery”… Drinking more water just prolongs the hot flashes.

(But how best to control the size of your family (i.e. birth control)?: Mrs. Crumpler recommends that “if these little ones are given in quick succession, it is just as well to have and get through with it. Many are the women who have borne a dozen or more children into the world, and afterwards filled positions of trust and nobility…” Huh.

Colds are typically caused by northeast and easterly winds…

Beware of sudden changes in air, food or medicines (especially those that contract or depress muscles): “may cause suffocation and death at any moment.”

Tumors of all kinds are caused by fish, eggs, oysters, pork, gaseous vegetables, and anything that depresses or excites the mind. Also, gas and “loaded bowels”. Anointing the entire body with goose oil should help.

Brain fever was caused by “some irregularity, over-work or undue excitement” and effective treatment includes shaving your head sitting in a cool dark room and keeping wet cool material wrapped around your neck.

Fascinating stuff!

Mama Day – Gloria Naylor (1988)

This was a buy at the most recent FoL Book Sale and it was a good one (although the narrative arc was not the easiest to keep straight in my head). I had been wanting to refocus a little more on POC authors/topics and thus this title bubbled to the surface. Plus – I had really enjoyed my read of another Gloria Naylor book (Bailey’s Café) and I’d just ordered myself a copy of the most famous of her books, The Women of Brewster Place (1982) so I was ready for a really good experience. 

This novel, Mama Day, is very different from Bailey’s Café and is much darker with a much more complex narrative than that one had. It’s a really good read, but forewarned is forearmed. And – this one goes REALLY dark towards the end (which actually means that I can now include it in the Scary October Reads list – an unexpected benefit!) 

(Let me make a note about the cover of this particular edition: It’s SOOOOOO 80s-perfect: pastel covers, geometric shapes, even the font design fits! – such a good example of design for that time period. Plus – lovely font and page set-up inside the actual book itself. Bliss.)

To the plot: it’s set on Willow Springs, a tiny island just off the coast of Georgia and an island unto itself in terms of how little the “outside” world impacts or influences this community. Its residents are sparse but closely interknit, and still rely on old-world practices of herbal medicine, the power of dreams, a close relationship with the natural world and magical aspects linked with its history of being a slave port and destination. 

A woman, who has grown up in that island community but who now lives in New York City, returns for a trip with her new husband, a city-born and -bred boy, and most of this narrative revolves around how the insular community reacts to him and how he reacts to them. His arrival is a mix of excitement combined with an unbalancing of the friends and family, and this mingling of each of these two very different worlds impacts the whole story right until the explosive end.

(I highly recommend that you set a large swathe of time to dive deeply into this novel. It’s not one that is easily interrupted, as once you’ve left this novel’s world, it’s quite tough to jump back into it without a short interval of confusion of who’s who, where and why due to the multiple POVs that Naylor employs. At least that was my experience.)

It’s a matriarchical society (led by Mama Day, who is the protagonist’s elderly grandma, and by her sister, Abigail), and the men who are there are confined more to the edges of the story. They still play a role and influence outcomes, but it’s a strongly feminist novel in terms of its leading characters and Naylor has done a good job exploring how this fairly removed world has grown and developed into the society that it is today.

So, what happens when this outside (male) person enters into this interior (female) world? The book ratchets up the tension as it progresses although it’s not clear to the reader how this intermixing of the separate elements is going to end. In fact, the whole ending completely surprised me in terms of how dark and how final it was, and it’s only in looking back at the whole narrative arc as a whole that I can see how it was actually quite inevitable when you see how the individual pieces join together to make the whole. 

As I think about it, this novel was a pretty slow-burn of a read. It’s not that the action drags, but more of how the embers of the plot lie below the surface gradually getting hotter without much notice until you turn the last page and realize that it’s turned into a huge bonfire. 

(Reading some of Naylor’s biographical info online, I learned of how her writing was influenced by such authors as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I can see that now I’ve finished the read.)

This was a read that turned out completely different than the one I had expected when I started it, and on this occasion, this veer off-course actually made it a much more impactful reading experience than otherwise. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed the read while it was happening, but now it’s completed, I can review the narrative with a lot more appreciation than I had thought and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. 

A complex but good read. 

For a review of another Gloria Naylor read, try Bailey’s Cafe (1992).

Getting some culture: two plays…

theothermozart

Since we’re lucky enough to live in a town with a big university presence, this means that we are also able to take advantage of some of the cultural offerings that come our way, and we recently went to two plays, both about some under-appreciated women which was a good touch as it’s Women’s History Month.

The first one was a one-woman play called “The Other Mozart” (written and performed by Sylvia Milo), and focused on the true story of Nannerl Mozart, Mozart’s older sister who was also a prodigy with music, but due to her gender and the times, didn’t receive all the attention that her younger brother did.

The solo actor was the sister in question, and so the play was presented through her eyes and thus the audience could track her musical life as she is recognized for her musical talents, but then slowly overtaken and eclipsed by the younger Mozart. I think this is probably a really good play, but the university sound system was very muffled and so it was pretty hard to keep up with what was going on.

That, and I had the ill-fortune to have a tall guy with a big bobble-head sit right in front, and it was uncanny how his head movements would match mine at almost every turn. So – good play. Bad venue. I’d still go and see this play, but only in a smaller theater with a good non-karaoke-based sound system.

frances-perkins-door-opened-quote

The other play was a completely different experience (thankfully). This was also a one-woman play, but in a much more intimate setting which made it easy to hear what the actor was saying and thus keep up with the action.

Called “If a door opens: a journey with Francis Perkins”, it was written and performed by a regional actor called Charlotte Keefe and focused on the life and times of said Francis Perkins, who was one of the earliest female Secretary of Labors in the twentieth century. She worked with presidents and others to help secure the 40-hour work week, social security benefits, and generally looked out for child and female workers at a time when they were over-used and under-paid.

Perkins also played a sentinel role in improving workplace safety standards as she was in NYC at the same time of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and knew how to effectively work with politicians, unions, and others to pass new laws improving working conditions for everyone who was not a rich white man. 🙂

I was not familiar with Perkins (or the actress who played her), but by the time we came to the end of the play, I was astonished at just how much Perkins achieved at a time in the twentieth century when women were not encouraged or supported in their working lives if they upset the status quo.

I really enjoyed this experience, and recommend that if you see this play coming anywhere near you (whether with this actor or another), you take the hour or so to see it. Perkins was a firebrand whose mark still remains on the twenty-first century workforce.

And then later on this week, we’ve got tickets to listen to Ruth Reichl, former NYT food critic and best-selling author… Riches abound right now.

February 2016 – Reading Wrap Up

february_clipart

 

So February was African-American History Month, and as usual, it was a month of learning loads of new things for me as I engaged in reading focused on the lives of African-Americans and POC. As usual, I enjoyed the heck out of it so I’ll definitely be doing this again next year.

Here’s the list of the titles that I have read lately that were linked with that theme:

I also attended some cultural events held at university over the month:

And February was a fun month! I’ve learned a lot about the world in which we all live and opened my mind with some (helpfully) challenging reads. Definitely going to continue reading more diversely this year as I’m really enjoying the whole thing.

Read on, my friends.

Praisesong for the Widow – Paule Marshall (1983)

book363

As part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition, this novel was a fine way to kick off the month-long project. It also happens to be one of the Viragos that I’ve had on my shelf for absolutely AGES and so it checked all my boxes, even more so when I had finished it because it was REALLY good. (Sorry. Got a bit shouty there for a second. It’s that good.)

This novel focuses on a few days in the life of a well-off African-American woman who impulsively decides to leave a Caribbean cruise, but is uncertain why. She has a strong feeling that she has to leave, but why does she give in the impulse? That’s the spotlight of this great feminist novel – what exactly is going on with protagonist Avey Johnson? “It’s completely out of character…” according to herself and her friends. But jump ship she does.

It’s an ethereal novel, very dream-like in places with time and scenery floating by at odd times. I found this to be unnerving at first, but once I gave into the flow of the writing and went along with it, it seemed as though it could not be written in any other way. Most of the novel is written from the POV of Avey – her thoughts, her dreams, her ideas, her experiences – and as the story progresses and we get to know her, her actions start to make perfect sense as the pages fly by.

Avey is a widow, her former husband fairly rule-bound and straight-forward, upwardly mobile and with fairly successful grown-up kids, all of which makes it even more perplexing why she suddenly jumps ship on the small island of Granada, without tickets or a plan or her friends. She seems to have done everything “right” as a middle-class African-American woman of the time – married carefully, raised the children, kept the house… And yet, for the first time during this cruise, she has been unsettled with memories of her childhood holidays with her great-aunt in the south with whom she danced on the beach and reached towards Africa…

By decamping from the expected cruise trip, Avey finds herself with a day to spare before her plane can take her back to New York and as she wanders around Grenada’s port town, she’s bombarded with new experiences and new languages, with different people and with different experiences, none of which really fit into her life as it was previously lived.

Avey ends up meeting an older Granadian man who invites her to travel along with him and other islanders back to his native island of Carriacou where they return every year to reconnect with family and community. And it’s here in Carriacou where Avey finally pieces together the puzzle that she’s forming in her head, where the trance-like feelings that she’s been experiencing and which she experienced with her great-aunt as a child would be clarified…

It’s a novel rich in colors, sounds, music and dancing. It’s a novel about returning to your roots and understanding your past in order to live your future, and it’s a novel about respecting things that may be hard to understand when you first meet them. One could also argue it’s about expected gender roles and expectations as well, as this experience only occurs now that her husband has died and she is with other female characters (her friends).

I loved this book which should be no surprise as I’ve loved the other two Paule Marshall books I’ve read (Brown Girl, Brown Stones  and Merle and Other Stories ), and this novel was a super way to kick off Black History Month.

Next up is….

 

Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid (1983)

book340

Since I’ve been digging more deeply into authors (and characters) of color, Jamaica Kincaid’s name has kept cropping up and so when I saw this title in a thrift shop the other day, I picked it up with interest. After struggling mightily with another book and finally admitting defeat, it was with somewhat relief that I picked this one up and found it to be a joy to read. I loved it and will definitely be picking up more of Kincaid in the future.

So – this was a fiction read, a bildungsroman (posh way of saying “coming of age”) that follows a young girl growing up on the Caribbean island of Antigua. It starts in the middle of her childhood and follows to her teens when there is a sudden change that happens to her that affects all her relationships, particularly that between herself and her mother. Previously adored, the teen protagonist now faces her mother with unexplainable rage and resentment, and the reader watches how this enigmatic development affects her life as she grows and changes. It’s pretty hard to watch but understandable for the most part as who, at some point during their teen years, wasn’t sorely embarrassed by one’s parents at one time or another for no particularly compelling reason?

So, as mentioned, protagonist Annie knows that this is how she feels, but doesn’t really understand why; with nothing to put her finger on, the closest that she is able to come to is describing it as “carrying the thimble that weighed worlds” deep down inside her. Who would understand that, she thinks sadly? No one, and her days go by with her repelling all that seemed perfectly fine until a few months ago with the arrival of that internal thimble.

Annie’s early to mid-teen years were deliriously happy with a mutually adoring relationship between her mother and herself, but once that dark feeling is established, things change for the worse and both of them are confused and frustrated by this sudden change. It’s never mentioned, but then neither of them has the right vocabulary to do that. (It’s fairly typical teenaged angst, but when you’re going through it, it’s a big deal, right?)

The narrative is structured as a series of eight chapters, each one describing a particular episode in Annie’s life (big and small) and spotlights the ebb and flow of school friends, confusion about this sudden dissatisfaction of almost everything in life, and no tools to impact it either way. I would think that anyone who was a teenager (or who knows a teenager) would be able to relate on some level, really.

The depths of the descriptions of the lushness of Annie’s life on Antigua reflect the depth of the introspection that is seen through the PoV of Annie. She is a ferocious and witty character with a fearless attitude to life. It’s equally frustrating and admirable at the same time, really.

This was a fabulous read on a rather endless plane journey, but the time passed really quickly (which underscores how good the read was). I loved loved loved this book.

Their Eyes were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

book250

Written in 1937, Their Eyes were Watching God was one of the first African-American feminist novels to achieve widespread prominence in the U.S. Obviously, African-American novels had been written by women before this, but not widely published and, in fact, this one was written 13 years after she had published her first short story (although this was only her second novel).

This is a good read. It’s a bit of a challenge at first as it’s mostly written in a strong dialect from the South, but when you get used to this (and it doesn’t take long), this is a great read. The novel’s protagonist, Janie Crawford, is a young African-American woman who struggles to find her place in a pretty unfriendly world with regard to her ethnicity and gender. However, as the story progresses, Janie grows and learns and this ends up being a bildungsroman by the end.

harlem-renaissance

Janie is a strong character who leaves her strict grandmother’s shack to start a not-very-enthusiastic marriage with a much older man who her grandmother wanted her to wed. Janie is struck with the notion of love being a very natural and romantic thing, of blossoms and beautiful moments, so when the marriage is not like that dream after a while, it’s a shock. She ends up running away with a very ambitious traveling salesman and then when that hits the skids, she elopes with a happy-go-lose guy. As her heart wanders, so does Janie with her husbands and this ends up a powerful story of growth written at a time when society did not support it (and in fact worked against it) for many people.

Not only is this a good story, but it’s brilliantly written and unlike my rather staid diet of mid-century British novels and Victorian old guys. This is lyrical and was very influenced by the African-American and Southern folklore that Neale Hurston has studied during her academic years. She was very familiar with the stories and songs and such lore is a frequent reference throughout the novel.

Janie weathers her life through awful marriages, through poverty, through misogyny, and it all really erupts when a hurricane careens through her small community on the Florida coast. The apocalyptic weather reflects her own life’s turmoil and as the hurricane passes, so does the life of Janie reach a new balance in many ways…

hurricane

The hurricane description is really one of the best parts for me – Neale Hurston nails the descriptions and the feeling of powerlessness for people impacted by severe weather events – Janie’s community is small and somewhat temporary; its population consists of mostly transient field workers and it’s quite a close community for the short time that they are all together. Neal Hurston describes the hurricane as an all-powerful being in many ways – of an omnipotent god who takes no mercy and shows no fear. In a way, it may represent the feeling of impotence that African-American people may have felt living their lives in the US at that time – no vote, no representation, little self-determination power etc… However you interpret it, it’s a powerful description and metaphor of a catastrophic storm.

 “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God…”

Horizons play an important and ongoing role throughout this narrative . For Janie, the horizon seems to be a far-off unreachable place until she meets Tea Cake. Her first marriage did not work out; her second marriage to the traveling salesman meant that they both ran off to meet their own new horizon, and the third (with Tea Cake) was described as them reaching their horizon.

At the end of the novel, Janie “pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes. She called in her soul to come and see…”

zora

Zora Neale Hurston had an interesting life as well, and it’s clear that some of this story’s plot is autobiographical at points. She attended Howard University for a few years around 1917 or so and gets an Associate’s degree – this at a time when very few women were even allowed in higher ed., and even fewer African-American women. She graduated in the end from Barnard (where she had been the sole black student and one of the oldest ones at the same time) and published fiction pretty widely as part of the Harlem Renaissance group. She led a life of academic research and fiction-writing, going through several marriages, and then ends up working as a maid in Florida, having a stroke and getting care at an indigent hospital and then being buried in an unmarked grave. She was a forgotten author until the 1970’s when Alice Walker and others brought her writing to the fore. It’s quite a fascinating story in and of itself.

So – good read. Not the easiest read in the world, but good all the same and thoroughly worth the effort.

ETA 06/29/2017: Even though this read is now a few years back, it’s one that I continue to think about and actually love more and more as time goes by. It’s worth sticking with…

For more reading by Zora Neale Hurston, try Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” (written in 1931, but published only recently). Fascinating.