Reading Go Tell It on the Mountain checked off some boxes for me. Not only does it qualify for the 1954 Club, but it is on my Classics Club list. In addition, it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Baldwin.
Fourteen-year-old John Grimes is in rebellion. His stepfather, Gabriel, is a deacon in a Black Pentacostal church. Gabriel is a man who believes himself bound for heaven, but John sees his faults. He is self-righteous and treats John harshly while he is kinder to his own scapegrace son. He is cruel to John’s mother, Elizabeth, because she had John out of wedlock. He has other faults that John doesn’t know about but Gabriel’s sister Florence does. John sees his hypocrisy and that of the “saints,” as the novel calls the church faithful, and stands aloof from the frenzied religious services.
The novel is divided into three sections. The first explores John’s frame of mind. The second is divided into thirds, which explore the thoughts of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth. Finally, in the third section, John is forced to confront his feelings in a service at church.
This novel is powerful, and its language is masterful. As I am an atheist, it’s hard for me to conceive of the characters’ mindset, in which everything is about the acceptance or rejection of God and all others are sinners. I thought it was interesting to explore this world, but I found especially the last, hallucinogenic section, and the resolution of John’s dilemma, to be a bit too much.