December 2003

Jen Crispin

hundred books

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I have to admit, I came to Alice Walker's The Color Purple with a lot of baggage. Of course I've seen the movie, who hasn't? But it was so long ago that most of it has faded, I only remember bits and snatches. Also, in high school I read Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy, because I was obsessed with Tori Amos at the time, and "Cornflake Girl" was supposed to have been partially based on the novel. So it's fair to say I had a lot of expectations of The Color Purple.

Secondly, I should admit that bookslut or not, I have a few pet peeves when it comes to reading novels. (Don't we all?) This book irritated two of them right from the first line. To begin with, the book is written in epistolary form, which outside of books actually written in the 18th century, makes me cringe. I've just seen it used as a crutch, and done poorly, too many times. But that's a minor matter compared to my other objection to the book: it's written in dialect. If it hadn't been so long since I finished a 100 Books List book for Bookslut, I might have thrown the book aside.

But I'm glad I didn't. The epistolary form worked, and the dialect was just enough to flesh out the character of the narrator, not so much that you had to work really hard just to figure out what any particular word was supposed to mean. And Celie is one of the most sympathetic characters in the history of literature. Her life is undeniably horrible, but she perseveres, ostensibly because she has no idea that life can be different from what she's known. The one time she lashes out at anyone, telling her step-son Harpo that he should beat his wife, Sofia, no harm seems to come of it, but she comes to regret it anyway. Yes, Sofia leaves Harpo, but you get the idea that she would have anyway, as Harpo is not able to reconcile his wife's strong character with his image of what a father and husband should be, after watching his father beat both of his wives.

While we're on the topic of wife-beating, one of the most heard criticisms of The Color Purple is that it depicts black men unfairly. Personally, I don't see it. Yes the three main male characters are wife-beaters and child molesters. But Walker does not turn a blind eye to the social forces that eventually cause the men to lash out in frustration and rage. Further, Celie's son, Adam, and Nettie's husband, Samuel are shown as good, upright men, and even Albert, Celie's abusive husband, is given a chance to redeem himself in the end.

Aside from a few instances in the latter half of the book where Walker seems to deviate from telling the story of Celie and her family and launch into a lecture about one or another of her personal beliefs, this book is truly wonderful. Uplifting without shying away from poverty and misery, and honest without being overly negative. Perhaps it is a slightly guilty pleasure, but just because it's easy to read, that doesn't make it fluff, as the fact that The Color Purple won a Pulitzer Prize should attest. I certainly cannot praise this book any more eloquently than the hundreds who have gone before me, so I will simply say this: Walker has certainly earned her place on our list.