Friday, October 1, 2010

The Color Purple - Alice Walker

Alice Walker published her award winning novel, The Color Purple, in 1982.  Shortly thereafter it began to attract criticism from many parents who believed the book was inappropriate.  It has been banned/challenged a number of times for sexual content, violence, and racism.

Summary:  This novel tells the story of two sisters--one a missionary in Africa and the other a child-wife living in the South--who sustain their loyalty to and trust in each other across time, distance, and silence. 

The principal voice is that of Celie, who has been raped by the man she believes to be her father, robbed of her two children, and married off to a man she hates.  Her sister, Nettie, escapes the same fate, and is befriended by missionaries who have unwittingly adopted Celie's children.  Separated for thirty years, the sisters live in ignorance of each other's circumstances.  Nettie's letters do not reach Celie, and so great is Celie's sense of shame that she can write only to God.  But life for Celie begins to change for the better when her husband's lover, a remarkable woman named Shug Avery, comes to live with them. 

Honest, poignant, vibrant, defiant, The Color Purple is a story of heroic lives, love, and the nature of God. (Summary from book - Image from life.arizona.edu)

My Review: **  Some books are classics because their story is so moving, so all encompassing, that they will be forever relevant.  Other books are classics because, when printed they were scandalous, groundbreaking literary works.  They were something that blew everything else out of the water.  Such is The Color Purple.

Alice Walker does not pull a single punch.  The very first page is a letter to God, written by a young girl, Celie, who tells of her brutal rape by a family member.  Celie continues writing about her turbulent adolescence -- taking care of her new husband's children from a first marriage and enduring beatings and frequent rapes at his hands.   Resigned to her lot in life, Celie cannot --will not-- imagine a way out.  To cope, she writes to God and shares her innermost thoughts about life in a poor black community.  Eventually, through letters written and the company of another woman (yes, that kind of company), Celie begins to navigate her own path.  Though the ending is neither perfect nor happilyever-after, she emerges completely transformed.

For me, Ms. Walker played the devil's advocate.  She used all the things that make me uncomfortable (graphic sexuality, offensive language, and racism) and with them, poked and prodded my sore spots to get a reaction. I suppose that was her objective -- to slap the apathy off my face and make me feel.  And I did.  At first, all I felt was revulsion.  I didn't want to read anymore about Celie's awful life.  I couldn't see a redeeming thing about it (Hey, I'm being honest).  However, once Celie began to receive letters from her sister, Nettie, who is on a mission in Africa, the book opened up for me on a more emotional level.  I reveled in the observations that Nettie made about the African people, the nature of God (however heretical), and the nature of man.  Though Nettie never received Celie's letters, the dialogue between the two sisters was touching and beautiful, as each struggled to make a life for themselves on separate continents.

I can understand why some parents objected to children of a certain age reading this novel.  Heck, I had a problem with me reading this novel.  There are a variety of topics that would make them squirm: graphic sexuality, sexual violence, homosexuality, offensive language, racial themes, and general misery.  That having been said, this book also allows for extensive dialogue on racial prejudice and it's use in literature, racial prejudice within ethnicities, women's rights and general inequality, as well as the nature of God, and highlights the importance of appreciating life, family, friends, and forgiveness in ways that I felt were uplifting.

While I can't say that the latter half of the book completely changed my opinion of the first half, I am glad that I read the book.  Ultimately, if you'd like to read this book, you're going to have to decide what you can handle.  Its good qualities are there, to be devoured and discussed, but you must get past all the muck on the surface.  One way or another, you cannot read this book and remain untouched. 
My Rating: 2.75 Stars.  For the sensitive reader:  This book is chock full of graphic sexuality and (to a lesser extent) crass language, violence, and some unorthodox theories about the nature of God. 

Sum it up: A classic fueled by powerfully raw emotion -- but it's not for everyone.

**This entire review was written at one in the morning with a severe head cold and zero meds (since you can't take jack squat when nursing).  So please, cut me some slack.  I'm seriously sleep deprived.

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