Not expecting to like this book, I read it as penance for my first two selections, which were romance novels. (It’s a classic! African-American history! Probably was assigned it in high school and never bothered to read it! Literature! In that spirit, this review is going to be more like a book report written by a fourth grader who just regurgitates the plot and then says something about themes and metaphors, and is also surprisingly jaded.)
I ended up being more than pleasantly surprised. Not that everything about it is pleasant; Janie, our protagonist, goes through a lot of crappy shit, which she relates to her best friend Phoeby. This retelling provides the framework for the bulk of the novel. Janie returns to her town after years away, and we see this homecoming from the viewpoint of gossiping, critical and envious porch-sitting ladies who only grow more bitter when Janie ignores them. The one sympathetic woman, Phoeby, follows Janie and asks for the story of where the hell she’s been for the past couple of years. Janie proceeds to tell her the story of where the hell she’s been her entire life, but Phoeby will probably eventually forgive her for talking her damn ear off.
Janie: Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman. Mother dead, father who knows, living with her grandmother. One beautiful spring day, she quite literally discovers the birds and the bees, kisses a boy, and immediately gets shipped off to be a creepy old man’s wife because gramma isn’t going to be around much longer and Janie needs to be taken care of when she’s gone. Old Man Logan starts off acting respectful of and loving to Janie, then slowly begins making more demands (why doesn’t she bring in the wood after he chops it, why doesn’t she blah blah blah) and insulting her to mask his own insecurity and fear of her leaving him. One day she’s out in the yard when charismatic, flashy, and comparatively young Joe Starks walks by, and let the flirting, secret trysts, and eventual running away together begin!
After a few weeks of blissful intrigue, Joe and Janie get married and travel down to Eatonville, Florida to join in with a group of black people who are building their own town. Joe quickly becomes their leader, since he has money and drive and a big belly, and Janie rises along with him as he opens the town’s only store, oversees the building of roads and a post office, and is unanimously elected mayor. Janie lives in a big house, with all the material possessions and respect she could want. The problem is that she doesn’t care about those things. She wants to be regular, to hang out with the crowd of men joking around in front of the store, and most of all, she wants to be in love. Joe treats her like a pretty object, with one particular sticking point being his jealous refusal to let her show off her long, straight, “white” hair.
Joe falls into the same pattern as Old Man Logan: criticizing Janie, putting down her looks to make himself feel more secure, yelling at her for cutting tobacco imperfectly, etc. Janie slowly becomes disenchanted with him, until one day she gets fed up, insults his nude form in public, gets slapped, and subsequently gets blamed for his upcoming death by kidney failure. After fending off men who want to marry her for her money, she meets a charming young fella, Tea Cake, who plays checkers with her and mimes about her store. Now, mimes are creepy, but Tea Cake does it cutely. They run off and get married, run down to the Everglades and work in the muck. Janie is happy, in love, working alongside Tea Cake, wearing overalls, learning how to shoot, and bitch-slapping hos who get too close to her husband. (SPOILERS) Then the hurricane hits, because they’re in Florida, and of course there’s going to be a freaking hurricane. They start fleeing too late, and Tea Cake needs to save Janie at one point (she’s caught in the water, spies a cow who’s swimming towards high ground with a dog on its back, and grabs onto its tail, which is an image I love). The dog tries to bite her head off, and Tea Cake dives in and throws him under, getting bitten in the process.
Climax. (CLIMAX MEANS GIANT SPOILER, DUH.) Janie’s Got a Gun. Tea Cake goes rabid. He comes after Janie with a gun, and she shoots him in self-defense, in a scene that’s terrifying even though we already know Janie doesn’t die and Tea Cake doesn’t return with her. The white men who are gathered to be the jury of her peers in her swift trial take a few minutes to decide, shockingly, that this beautiful, light-skinned black woman with straight hair is not guilty of murdering a poor, dark-skinned man. Go figure. Janie returns to Eatonville, which I keep thinking of as Eatin' Ville: The Town for Eatin', saddened by the loss of Tea Cake, but happy that, after all these years, she has found herself.
The dialogue is written in black Southern dialect and took some getting used to, but it soon became fun to read. The dialect contrasts with the narration, which is more literary and traditionally beautiful, using great metaphorical imagery.
I liked Their Eyes Were Watching God. The End!
*Did anyone else have to write that on all of their papers in grade school? It was an honesty pledge: This Is My Own Work.