If ever a book is going to grab you at 'hello', let it be Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
This book, which I just recently finished reading for my online reading group, has to be one of my favorite, favorite, favorite, favorite books of all time. (Yes, it's right up there along with Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.) I first "discovered" Zora Neale Hurston by force. She was required reading in a short story course I was taking in the Fall of 1997. When I signed up for the course, I was not an English major. I was just looking to fulfill the core requirements. (The very fact that I was in that class was an accident because of schedule conflicts and classes having to be changed, rearranged, etc. at the last moment. One thing I don't miss about college is the hassle of registering for classes, having some be canceled and having to scramble to find something new at the last minute.) By the end of the semester, however, I had changed majors and chosen to walk down a new path. (Zora Neale Hurston wasn't solely responsible, however, she had help from some other greats.) Hurston kept popping up on reading lists in college. A short story here and there. And then there came the novel--Their Eyes Were Watching God--I honestly don't remember if it was assigned reading just once or if I read it twice 'officially' (meaning for a grade). But regardless, it was love. I've read this one at least four or five times since that first introduction.
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly. (1)
The story. At the heart of the story is a woman. Janie. Except for the very briefest introductions, we first meet Janie as a young woman, sixteen or seventeen and just awakening to the possibilities of love and life and passion.
Oh to be a pear tree–any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her? Nothing on the place nor in her grandma’s house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made. (11)But life and love don't come easy for Janie. Her grandmother, the woman who raised her, forces her into a loveless marriage. Logan is Janie's first husband, her first introduction to what it means to 'be' a woman. In chapter three, we read, "She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman." (25) But Janie goes on to have other dreams and second chances.
Janie's life isn't easy, and the things that take her from an unhappy wife of seventeen to a grown woman, a sadder but wiser woman, in her forties are often bittersweet. But her story is one that must be told, must be shared. It is an emotional journey of one woman's life, one woman's experiences and heart aches. Her hopes. Her dreams. Her everything laid before the world.
“Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” (191)
“Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” (192)The book is beautiful. Full of imagery--some beautiful, some haunting, some heartbreaking, but always, always authentic imagery. The language. The characters. The style. This one is a real gem of a book. The best of the best. A true masterpiece.
On the official site you can listen to excerpts of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mules & Men, and Every Tongue Got To Confess. All performed by Ruby Dee. (Now, if only MY library would have these audio books, I’d be very happy indeed.)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (Official)
National Endowment for the Arts: The Big Read: Their Eyes Were Watching God.
To call Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God an “African American feminist classic” may be an accurate statement-it is certainly a frequent statement-but it is a misleadingly narrow and rather dull way to introduce a vibrant and achingly human novel. The syncopated beauty of Hurston’s prose, her remarkable gift for comedy, the sheer visceral terror of the book’s climax, all transcend any label that critics have tried to put on this remarkable work. First published amid controversy in 1937, then rescued from obscurity four decades later, the novel narrates Janie Crawford’s ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny. Although Hurston wrote the novel in only seven weeks, Their Eyes Were Watching God breathes and bleeds a whole life’s worth of urgent experience.