The Color Purple – Alice Walker (1982)


“Wives is like children. You have to let em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.”

This was a book that I’ve been meaning to reread for ages, and so with my project of African-American History Month, I dug out a copy and dug in. This was definitely one of the best reads that I’ve had so far this year. It was really good and I picked it up at every chance that I could get as I wanted to keep up with Celie, the main character. I was actually pretty riveted to this story and the memorable characters.

Written in 1982, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for 1983, and then was made into a film and a musical as well. (In fact, my local cinema is holding a movie series focused on sexism in American movies, and this particular film is one of the selections. I’m interested to hear what the prof says.)

So – to the story itself. Written in an epistolary form (swoon), it is made up of letters (obviously) from Celie to God, from her sister Nettie far away to Celie, and finally from Celie to Nettie. Celie, the main character, has grown up in poverty, having been abused by her father, her stepfather, and then her husband. She is really beaten in how she views the world, and the reader can read this as it’s seen through her eyes. The scene is set in 1930’s rural Georgia and makes no effort to try to sweeten life for poor women of color at that time. There’s violence, some drugs, rampant unemployment and poverty. It’s a tough mix to handle, but it’s much tougher for the characters involved.

alice_walkerIt’s also written in dialect, but this is completely understandable when you take your time, and it’s the dialect that makes the book special as it makes the events immediate and multicolor to the reader. At least it did for me.

Poor Celie. I really wanted to go out and rescue her and teach her that the world doesn’t have to be that horrible all the time. Her father abused her (and maybe slept with her) to produce two children who she hasn’t seen for years. Her stepfather hates her, and then she is made to marry another winner for a husband, a man who continues the abuse because he would rather have married someone else.

This husband of Celie’s is actually in love with another woman, a glamorous lounge singer who, when she gets ill one time, actually moves into the same house with Celie and her husband. Celie adores the singer (named Shug Avery) and is bereft when Shug leaves after getting well. And the story continues over the rest of Celie’s life. Does she ever get a break? You’ll have to read it to see.

It’s a long convoluted story with multiple characters and multiple layers to the narrative which leaves it open to various interpretations. It’s definitely a feminist novel in that Celie learns to take charge of her life and safety, and steps out on her own. Shug and another character called Sofia are independent women who don’t put up with bad behavior from the men in their lives, and then Nettie, Celie’s long-lost sister, also is brave when taking a leap into the unknown when she travels to Africa.

There’s systemic racism (naturally) that plays a huge role in the narrative arc, and there’s the questioning of gender roles throughout. There’s the issue of racial stereotypes (clearly described when Nettie goes to Africa and deals with the African perspective of African-Americans). In fact, I could go on and I imagine professors and teachers have a hay day with this. Interestingly enough, it’s also on the ALA Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books List of 1990-1999 and the years 2000-2009 for “offensive language, sexually explicit and unsuited to age group”.  Strangely, it hasn’t made the Top Ten list since 2009. Perhaps schools have stopped putting it in their curricula? Not sure.

I say this is a darned good read with a protagonist you’ll fall in love with despite her flaws. If you had to read this as part of your school curriculum and didn’t enjoy it, try it again now that you may be older. It’s a fantastic read and I continue to think about Celie even now.

And that in wondering about the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big ones than you start out. The more I wonder, he say, the morel love.

(NOTE: I’m sad that some men still engaged in horribly racist Jim-Crow style killing in Mississippi and just got ordered to pay $840,000 to the estate of the murdered man. See the story here.  Sometimes I wonder about the human race.)

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