Day 636: Their Eyes Were Watching God

their-eyes-were-watching-godTheir Eyes Were Watching God was my selection for Classics Spin #8 for the Classics Club! Here is my review.

I had a complex reaction to this novel. On the one hand, I liked its protagonist, Janey Crawford, and was interested in her struggle to define her own identity. On the other hand, I didn’t much like any other characters in the novel. On the one hand, Janey’s struggles to define herself make the novel a landmark feminist book; on the other hand, Janey defines herself through her choice of husbands and her relationships to them. On the one hand, I don’t usually like tales in the vernacular; on the other hand, both the educated omniscient narrator and Janey’s vernacular third/first-person narration have moments of entrancing imagery. And speaking of that imagery, for a book written in 1937, the novel is occasionally startling in its sexuality.

A woman in her 40’s, Janey has recently returned home without Tea Cake, the man she left with. Having departed in some scandal, a well-off widow with a much younger, penniless man, she is figuring in a lot of talk. So, when her friend Phoeby comes to see her, Janey decides to tell her the story of her life.

Janey was raised by her grandmother in West Florida after her mother had her as a result of rape and then disappeared. Janey is a light-skinned black woman with long beautiful hair, and her appearance features in much of her story. When she is still an extremely innocent 16-year-old, her grandmother marries her off to a much older man, trying to give her stability. Janey thinks that marrying will make them love each other, but she is soon disillusioned and finds he is inclined to treat her like a work horse.

Then she meets Joe Starks, a flashy well-dressed man who seems to be going somewhere, and is. She leaves with him and they settle in an all-black town in “the new part of Florida,” where Joe soon becomes the mayor and store owner. But he defines his marriage by what he gives her and expects her to maintain a certain decorum as his wife, not allowing her to participate in many of the small town amusements. Also, he treats her with disrespect, publicly ridiculing her.

After Joe dies, under circumstances that have already started talk, Janey meets Tea Cup and eventually leaves with him to work in the Everglades. Although Tea Cup is in some ways an improvement over her other two husbands, there are some events that disturbed me. First, he steals her $200 and comes back with $12, but she is only upset when she thinks he has left her. Next, he earns it back but makes her put it in the bank and promise to live off what he can provide, a classic play for dominance that ignores the fact that she soon has to go to work next to him, manually in the fields. Finally, he beats her up once, not because of anything she does but because he wants to show everyone that she belongs to him.

Hurston was a trained ethnographer, and her fiction details a way of life in small-town Florida of her time. I found many of the details interesting. A fascination with skin color and Caucasian features is one theme that comes up several times. In fact, when Tea Cake beats Janey, instead of provoking a discussion of the fairness of the beating, the people are more fascinated by Janey’s skin being fair enough that they can see the bruises, which makes the other men envious.

Janey is often viewed harshly and unfairly by others. But it is part of her growing self-awareness that she doesn’t care. Although to me she sometimes seems too passive in her relationship to men—her gentle response to Tea Cake’s beating is seen as a good thing—she is otherwise a strong and resourceful heroine.

Day 481: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Cover for St. Lucy'sDifficulties of youth and adolescence are the themes of Karen Russell’s unusual collection of short stories. Many of them are set in the Florida Everglades among bizarre and tacky theme parks or tourist destinations, where children sled through the sand on crab shells or visit enormous conches.

The first story, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” provides an introduction to the two sisters who are more fully developed in Russell’s later novel Swamplandia! Abandoned momentarily at their Everglades theme park home, Ava has a murky encounter with the Bird Man and tries to rescue her sister Osceola from her ghost lover. That story is expanded in the novel, which I really enjoyed.

Although certainly all are unusual, some of the stories are more bizarre than others. In “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” a 19th century family makes a difficult crossing west, their wagon pulled by their father, the Minotaur. In the title story, human children of werewolves are sent away to be raised by nuns so that they can have a better life than their parents.

Russell’s stories are at once peculiar and oddly touching, full of young misfits who are even more out of place than all adolescents think they are. At times funny, such as the descriptions of the wolf-girls’ canine behavior when trying to adjust to their new school, the stories all reverberate with longing. Russell’s writing is brilliantly fierce and original, sparked by her own peculiar vision.

A few of the stories felt to me as if the author was just trying to think of the strangest ideas possible, and she almost lost me in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows.” But ultimately, I enjoyed the stories, although I prefer the more developed characters and plot of Swamplandia!

Day 404: Swamplandia!

Cover for SwamplandiaBest Book of the Week!

Swamplandia! is the third book I’ve read in the past few months that has a strong young female voice (with Tell the Wolves I’m Home and Where’d You Go, Bernadette). All of them were very good.

Before I start, though, a comment on the cover for the hardcover copy of the book, which is not the one I read or the one shown here. I was not really clear about whether this book is considered appropriate for young adults or not (probably), but the hardcopy cover makes Swamplandia! look like a children’s book, showing a very young girl piggyback on a character who looks somewhat like the Mad Hatter, both watching an alligator. Let me warn you that Swamplandia! is definitely not for young children.

Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree and her family live on an island in a hokey-sounding amusement park in the Florida Everglades called Swamplandia! There, they dress up as Native Americans (their grandfather, who founded the park, was a German-American farmer from Ohio) and breed and wrestle alligators. Ava’s mother Hilola was the main attraction until she became ill with cancer and eventually died.

Since then the family has tried to cope with its grief while also attempting to save the floundering park. Homeschooled and with little contact with the mainland, the Bigtree kids have been raised in a sort of dream land. They all possess a thorough and subversive knowledge of the history of Florida and of its flora and fauna but not many skills for dealing with the outside world. Kiwi spends almost all his time reading, Osceola believes she has a ghost lover, and Ava is aiming to become a world-famous alligator wrestler.

When tourists stop arriving on the ferry, Chief Bigtree, the children’s father, makes one of his mainland journeys to raise money to save the park, but not before Kiwi apparently abandons them to get a job with the park’s competitor, The World of Darkness. Sixteen-year-old Osceola and Ava are left alone on the island until Osceola floats away on an old barge to join her lover.

Frantic to save Osceola, young Ava joins up with a mysterious man named the Bird Man, who claims to know his way into hell, which is where Ava assumes she must go to bring Osceola back from her ghost lover. As our apprehension grows, we follow Ava’s journey while periodically cutting over to observe Kiwi’s serio-comic adventures at the hell-themed World of Darkness.

Russell creates a lush world in Swamplandia! and a compelling narrator in the innocent/wise Ava. The language of the novel is gorgeous, its heroine engaging. You will find yourself immersed in a damp world bursting with life, and you won’t want to leave it until you know what happens to Ava.