A few years ago, I read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved it to pieces and immediately decided I needed to read more of her books. In the bookstore, however, I didn’t know what to try next. I didn’t recognize any of her other titles. I arbitrarily decided I should try Jonah’s Gourd Vine. It’s taken me a few years to pick it up, though.
Turns out, this was Hurston’s first novel. I hadn’t realized that. It’s about the life of a half-black half-white man named John. John starts out on the farm of his mom and stepdad (we never find out who his father is), but moves to a new farm in his late teens because his stepdad is always fighting with him over his mixed-race heritage. Once on the farm, he goes about learning how to read at the school and begins to court a girl named Lucy, whom he eventually marries. They leave the area and move across the country, and soon John becomes a preacher due to his charisma and great voice. He’s real popular with his congregation, and also with the women around him. John’s always had a problem with women. He’s a lustful man and the women who love him are hurt one by one. All the way up to his death, though he tries, he never learns to control himself.
The book was very well written. It’s written in the same oral-tradition type style as Their Eyes Were Watching God, where dialogue is spelled out how it’s pronounced rather than what the words are supposed to be. Some people find it very difficult to read Hurston because of this style, but for some reason it comes natural to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up in the south. It’s funny, though, because usually I can’t stand books written in dialect. I can’t stand Mark Twain, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or even Hagrid from Harry Potter because of the dialect. It’s an automatic turnoff. For some reason, though, it’s not the same with Hurston’s writing. I don’t mind the dialect, and it feels natural and right to me. I love it.
While this book is written as well as Their Eyes Were Watching God, I liked the latter better because I really hated John in this book. I could never understand his character and I certainly couldn’t relate to him at all. He’s described as being the epitome of the conflict in man between spiritual and physical self, but I don’t buy that. I don’t believe that anyone, man or woman, simply can’t control their lust and physical cravings. I hate the saying, “A man has needs.” It’s so ridiculous, and it paints the picture that a man is a mere animal, a slave to his passions. Sorry, but I think that’s an outdated and incorrect assumption. John could have controlled himself. Plenty of men do. John just didn’t want to enough.
So because I really didn’t like John, I paid more attention to the other things in the book, particularly the interplay of religion and magic in post-slavery black culture. I hadn’t realized how strongly people believed in magic back then and I thought it was an interesting aspect for Hurston to focus on. One of my favorite passages came from a deacon regarding this subject. One of John’s wives asks the deacon if he believes in hoodoo, and he responds:
Yeah, Ah do, Mrs. Rev’rund. Ah done seen things done. Why hit’s in de Bible, Sister! Look at Moses. He’s de greatest hoodoo man dat God ever made. He went ‘way from Pharoah’s palace and stayed in de desert nigh on to forty years and learnt how tuh call God by all his secret names and dat’s how he got all dat power. He knowed he couldn’t bring off all dem people lessen he had power unekal tuh man! How you recken he brought on all dem plagues if he didn’t had nothin’ but human power? And then agin his wife wuz Ethiopian. Ah bet she learnt ‘im what he knowed. Ya, indeed, Sister Pearson. De Bible is de best conjure book in de world.
(If you’re having trouble reading it, try reading it out loud. That’s what tends to help people unfamiliar with the dialect.)
I love it! There are things in the Bible that each religion explains in a different way, and this is just the same thing. This man understood magic and religion in his own way, and it all fit together for him. I find this completely fascinating, and I love the reference to the Ethiopian wife who probably taught Moses all that magic anyway. 😀
So in the end, I couldn’t like this book as much as Their Eyes Were Watching God because I didn’t agree with the premise Hurston was exploring about the conflict within man. At the same time, though, it is a fascinating look into a culture I’m woefully unfamiliar with, and I really enjoyed that aspect of the book.