Welcome back to my monthly coverage of Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf book club! Last month’s pick was “My Life on the Road,” and this month, Ms. Watson has chosen a classic: “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker.
“The Color Purple” official Goodreads synopsis:
“The Color Purple is a 1982 epistolary novel by American author Alice Walker which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. It was later adapted into a film and musical of the same name.
Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, the story focuses on the life of women of color in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. The novel has been the frequent target of censors and appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009 at number 17 because of the sometimes explicit content, particularly in terms of violence.”
I should preface my review of Walker’s novel with this: for the most part, I don’t enjoy historical fiction in American literature. Don’t get me wrong, I love Fitzgerald, Salinger, O’Connor, Whitman and Faulkner; I simply find myself at a stand-still when reading historical or period fiction in American literature. In my undergraduate studies, distribution requirements saw me taking a handful of American literature courses for which I felt a broad indifference. Still, I read each novel, short story and poem on the list with care, delved into (and even led) group discussions and participated in round-table analyses; overall, I performed exceedingly well, even with my lower level of interest as compared to my other courses. While I may not have felt passion for what I was reading, I kept a clear head and drew on my prior experiences in literary analysis and critique in order to bring forth new thoughts or a different approach to understanding certain aspects. Essentially, I worked to give each piece of writing the attention it deserved in an academic setting.
Stepping into the responsibility of reading Walker’s “The Color Purple” — yes, for the very first time — I prepared for a similar process: to not be entirely taken with the story, but to still read with an open mind, maintain impartiality and think critically, even if it’s about something others might not find significant. I was determined that if I didn’t particularly enjoy it, I could at least have thoughts about the novel’s story, characters and themes. While I did do all of those things — be willing, and not let my detachment to the genre derail the reading experience — I was glad that I enjoyed the book. I hesitate to say pleasantly surprised, however, as the subject matter doesn’t quite elicit a feeling that could be described as pleasant. Affecting is more appropriate. Thinking deeply about “The Color Purple” wasn’t something I had to consciously remind myself to do; it came naturally, and my thoughts lingered long after Walker’s final words.
Walker executes the story of Celie, her family and her hardships through Celie’s letters to God, which construct the novel’s entirety. These letters detail more than two decades of abuse, neglect and illness, but also document personal growth and the realization that love and hope are possibilities rather than just dreams. At a basic level, I’m fond of the epistolary form, especially when it’s done right. I’ve lauded works like “Evelina” by Frances Burney and “Pamela” and “Clarissa” by Samuel Richardson. Walker’s “The Color Purple” can be added to that list. While, yes, I can understand others’ aversion to it — as at certain points I felt the story veering into a direction I wasn’t sure it needed to go or found myself losing focus of what was or had been going on — the epistolary form lent itself beautifully to the rawness of the novel. I couldn’t imagine the story being told in any other way. Walker writes with a distinct voice not just in the deliberate use of phonetic dialect, but in the way her words feel, and she paints her characters vivid. Each moment is saturated in emotion, and each character transcends the written word.
Without spoiling too much via summary, this novel has many moments that can be difficult to read. It’s not light lit; it’s heavy and it’s devastating and it doesn’t let up. “The Color Purple” deals with sexism, racism, poverty, abuse, violence, colonialism, exploitation and oppression, and it’s unconcerned with sugarcoating for easier digestion. But it’s not all gloom; “The Color Purple” explores the fluidity of sexuality, the importance of familial love and how the feminist bonds between women serve as an act of resilience and revolution. To me, it seems a novel about the relationship between struggle and solicitude.
In a single sentence, “The Color Purple” is unapologetic and wrenching, well-written and alive.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★ (9/10)
If you haven’t already, you can become a member of Our Shared Shelf now! Head on over to Goodreads and click “join group.” Be sure to check back here at TYF each month to see my reviews.
Emma’s pick for March is “All About Love: New Visions” by bell hooks.
Until April, happy reading!