Title: The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker
Plot: 'Dear God: I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me ...'
So begins Alice Walker's touching, compelling, prize-winning novel set in the harsh, segregated world of the Deep South between the wars. Celie has been raped by the man she calls father; her two children have been taken away from her; she has been forced into an ugly marraige. She has no one to talk to but God.
Then she meets Shug Avery, singer and magic maker, and Celie discovers not the pain of female rivalry but the love and support of women.
(Taken from back cover of: Alice Walker, 1982. The Color Purple. Great Britain: The Women's Press.)
Review: **Note: May contain mild spoilers** I first came into contact with the story of The Color Purple about ten years ago when I sat down with my parents to watch the screen adaptation. A few years later I studied the book for my A Levels in college. I enjoyed it on both occasions but it wasn't until I picked it up again, a few days ago, that I truly read it.
For the first time, I'm seeing this story in a different light; I'm seeing it the way Walker wanted us to see it. It's a tale about an African American community in the Deep South at the beginning of the 20th century - a tale of women and their struggle to find their place in the patriarchal society they've grown accustomed to, and how a few of those women fight for their own rights in their own home.
Celie has already had two children by her father when we meet her. As a result, she's married off to Mr. _______ , an abusive widower who is madly in love with blues singer, Shug Avery. As the years go on, Celie begins to form an attachment to this singer who she has yet to meet: this woman who has the ability to make all men weak at the knees; this woman who sings the devil's music and has taken control of her own life, no matter what her family say. In some ways, Shug is the anti-Celie. Our heroine is meak and abused in her own home, while Shug represents the modern woman, displaying typically 'male' characteristics. It is Mr. _______ who describes her best:
"He say he love her style. He say, to tell the truth Shug act more manly than most men. I mean, she upright, honest. Speak her mind and the devil take the hindmost, he say. You know Shug will fight, he say."
At a time when Celie represents the 'every' woman - the repressed wife, taking a back seat to her husband's mistress and looking after his children - Shug is representing the new idea of what women are capable of. She is in control of her sexuality, knows how to use it, and is comfortable with love, life, and spirituality.
When they finally meet, she is the one who teaches Celie how to own her femininity. Celie has grown up in a society dominated by men and it is Shug who reawakens her. Their turbulent relationship begins, during which we see Celie grow through her improved use of language, sense of humour, and confidence around those "frogs" that have been so controlling.
Two other notable women characters are Sofia and Nettie. Sofia, Celie's stepdaughter-in-law, is a strong, boisterous woman, often compared to "amazons" - an indication of how warrior like she is. Sofia is perhaps the strongest female in the novel, often playing the 'male' role in her marriage (which her husband doesn't seem to mind that much, much to the disappointment of his father) and even getting into trouble with the law for standing up to the "white folks." What is interesting about her, though, is how quickly Walker teaches us about the horrific consequences of a strong-willed black woman's actions in these times; Sofia apologises to no-one and (in keeping with the reality of the time and place) this causes problems.
Nettie, Celie's beloved sister, hasn't been seen for years since Mr. _______ threw her out. Though she promised to write letters, nothing has been sent and Celie thinks of her every day. Though we don't know too much about the woman Nettie would have grown up to be in the Deep South, Nettie eventually becomes the key to our history lesson from the book. She has been in Africa, the place of her and Celie's ancestors, and through her words we come to see how the segregation between black and white has come about. Slavery is over but prejudice is thriving. Celie's community is poor and has no real knowledge about their background: it is Nettie who is the one to teach them about their fellow 'brothers and sisters' across the world.
I love this book. It makes me want to learn more about African-American history (as a Brit, I barely learnt anything about this in school). The heartbreaking suppression of women in a patriarchal society which, through strength, love, and sisterhood, begins to disappear as they connect with one another and learn more about what it means to be a real woman is an inspiring story, no matter what your background. Walker's use of the old 'Black American English' to write her characters' letters is a wonderful way to convey how each woman grows through the years as the language improves and the confidence exudes from the pages.
Celie is not perfect. Neither is Shug. Nor Sofia. But that is what makes these women real. They are real characters with real flaws and we feel connected to a part of them in spite of their age, race, or background.
At a time such as this (in the twenty-first century) when women seem to do nothing but fight each other for the affection of men, it is refreshing to read about a group of women who'll do anything to stick together and embrace who they are, never to let a man come between the unspoken bonds they hold. Even the men learn something from these relationships, as we see Mr. _______, the previously dominant leader of the family, eventually take a step back to try and learn a little something about himself and not be afraid to challenge gender stereotypes ("When I was growing up, he said, I use to try to sew along with mama cause that's what she was always doing. But everybody laughed at me. But you know, I liked it.")
I'm counting this book as one of my six for the GLBT Challenge. Not only is it written by bisexual author, Alice Walker, but it celebrates women's sexuality through friendship, love, relationships, and sisterhood.
About the author: Alice Walker is an American novelist, short-story writer, poet, essayist, and activist. Her most famous novel, The Color Purple, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983. Alice Walker's creative vision is rooted in the economic hardship, racial terrorism, and folk wisdom of African American life and culture, particularly in the rural South. Her writing explores multidimensional kinships among women, among men and women, among humans and animals, and embraces the redemptive power of social, spiritual and political revolution. (Taken from the author's official website.)