They sat there in the fresh young darkness close together. Phoeby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie full of that oldest human longing--self-revelation. Phoeby held her tongue for a long time, but she couldn't help moving her feet. So Janie spoke.
Several months ago, I was looking at one of those lists of books that the BBC thinks you haven't read any of and one of them was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. For some reason it caught my eye, and since I had not indeed read it, I downloaded it on my Kindle, and I've been wanting to say a bit about it ever since. I'm not going to even attempt to write any sort of formal review. I just want to give you an idea of why I thought it was a good read.
The story in Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in the period immediately after the Civil War. The protagonist, Janie, is born at the very end of the war, and at the end of the book she is in her late forties, so it occurs shortly before the Delta Wedding which takes place in 1923. Both books are set in the South, but the characters live in two different worlds: one, that of the post-war, white Southern aristocracy, and the other that of a new all-black town in Florida.
Janie does have one thing in common with the characters in Delta Wedding, however. Her father was the owner of the plantation on which her mother was a slave, but he runs off in fear of approaching Northern troops and her mother soon dies. Janie's mixed race does cause her to have some difficulties in her childhood, and also to have advantages that other ex-slave children would not have had, but for the most part race doesn't play a large part in the narrative because most of the book takes place in an exclusively black community.
As the book begins, Janie has just returned to her home after having eloped with a younger man following the death of her husband. Her friend, Phoeby, has brought her something to eat, and as the quote above reveals, Janie is about tell Phoeby the story, not just of her elopement, but of her whole life, and Janie tells a very good story. As it is the story of her escape from the perceived imprisoning Christian standards of her grandmother, and her pursuit of a fulfillment of her awakening sensuality, it's a rather amoral story, but it's a great narrative, and very well-written, and it's a look into a life that most of us won't ever see from the inside.
Ms. Hurston's book also has that one quality that is sure to endear any book to me and that is a certain wry or oblique sense of humor that sneaks in to the narrative. It also has some outright slapstick moments. Slapstick doesn't usually appeal to me, but hers is so well-suited to her characters that even I find it amusing. And then the reader will often come across moments of inspired wisdom, or of a very clear-sighted understanding of human nature, as when she speaks of Phoeby's desire to feel and do through Janie's story.
There is one difficulty that I had with this book, though, and that is that it's written in a very thick dialect. It's so thick that even I, who spent a good part of my childhood in the presence of a woman who spoke in a similar dialect, have trouble deciphering it sometimes. I think it might be a problem for anyone who is not from the American South; however, I think it's probably worth the effort.