Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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4.5 out of 5 Purple Stars

This was my 2nd read of this book – the last time was in high school. I don’t remember a lot of it from the first read, other than the sexual content. This book is often challenged by school boards – supposedly over the violence, thought there is a lot of sexual content (not graphic but blunt and to the point).I remember it was the first book I’d read where sexual abuse was bluntly addressed in verbs and nouns rather than metaphor. The main characters being lesbian/bisexual no doubt has something to do with the book being challenged as well.

The story is set in Georgia in the 30’s and told in letters – which are addressed to God. They are written by a black girl named Celie starting when she is a young girl, pregnant with her father’s baby. On top of this, her mother is dying. Basically, Celie’s life is shit and she sees no way out. Her only outlet are pleas to God to get through what is happening to her. She’s not well educated but she’s very observant and smart, and the letters bring you so close to her heart and soul – she just pours herself into those letters. In the beginning, they’re short and you move quickly through the story. She has two babies by her father in quick succession, both taken away, and assumed dead. Her closest friend is her younger sister, Nettie. At first, Celie wants her to stay in school and make something of herself (this was a brave idea for a woman, especially a black woman, in the 30’s) but when her father starts acting like he will go after Nettie, she encourages her to get married, even if it has to be to the pervert sniffing around for her.

That pervert is Mister. That’s the only name we get for a long time. Sadly, it’s Celie that gets handed over to Mister. He’s a brutal pig. His wife died, and he has a gaggle of awful children that she has to take care of. He treats her like a servant and beats her. (I was going to add “for no reason” but there is never any reason for a man to beat a woman. Goddamn what the patriarchy does to us.) And everyone knows about Shug Avery.

I am so glad  I re-read this if only to meet Shug Avery again. A blues singer that’s already got some acclaim, she and Mister have been lovers for years. But now she’s sick, and no one will help her. Despite their past, Celie is fascinated by Shug after seeing some of her fliers. Shug is one of those people that everyone loves, and she loves to love. I often use Shmoop, a site that has literary summaries and analysis of classic books, in order to help me understand some of the historical stuff or understand things I might miss. I love it. (Not spon, by the way – no one reads this site let alone sponsors me for anything.) And I loved what it said about Shug. She doesn’t stop loving people. She can’t commit, but not because she doesn’t love, so I think you could say as well as being bisexual, she’s also polyamorous? I hope I’m not interpreting that wrong. I remember having a problem with that as a 14 or 15 year old reading this, but I definitely had a better handle on her this read. At first, she comes into Celie’s house as a sick, shunned woman. You don’t know what’s wrong with her, but people are assuming all sorts of awful things. In this situation,she’s angry, and not in the mood to give her lover’s wife (who she calls ugly and skinny) much mind. She treats her like a servant. But rather than being cowed or insulted by this, Celie is intrigued. The two women become friends.

Besides what is going on with Mister and Celie, we see what abuse in a marriage does to the kids. The only one of Mister’s children that we really get to know is Harpo. He falls in love with a woman and marries her. Sofia comes from a family of strong willed women and she won’t bow to anybody. Harpo wants to make her mind, like Celie does, and he tries beating her. That doesn’t work with Sofia. It’s sad how twisted Harpo’s idea of marriage is. He likes to do things around the house, his wife likes to work on the physical aspect of the house and farm – and they love each other. If not for the rigid gender roles that twist Harpo’s thinking, they could have been happy.

Another big point of the novel is what happens to Nettie. As soon as she can, she runs away from home to be with Celie and Mister to get away from her father. But after Mister throws her out, Celie tells her to go to a minister and his wife that she met by chance. They were the only black people she’d ever seen with money. Sadly, she never hears from her sister, and assumes she is dead. However, and I really hope no one thinks this is a spoiler – because it is in the blurb on Goodreads, but Mister has been keeping all the letters. What a dick. This is one thing too much for Celie and she breaks. It’s one indignity, one cruel blow too many, and with Shug’s help, she leaves.

Just before this novel, I had read Beloved by Toni Morrison and Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote. Both are gorgeously written, dense, beautiful stories that I often had to reread pages of to understand (as much as I loved them both, they were what I’d call difficult reads). The Color Purple is just as beautiful in terms of story, character, theme, and it’s told in broken, colloquial English and bad grammar. It is such an easy, accessible read. It doesn’t take long to get the rhythm of Celie’s writing style and it still portrays the range of her emotions, and has moments of gorgeous expression.

The Color Purple touches on everything from sexual and physical abuse, to family, to gender roles and sexuality, dignity, and of course, the rampant racism that people of color deal with even to this day. It’s an amazing, well told story with fully fleshed characters – nearly everyone has an arc that would please a creative writing teacher (if you wanna get technical about it) but it was just a joy to read. I stayed up till 3 in the morning and didn’t quite get it finished. I couldn’t wait to read it the next morning.

I am going to make a point of adding diverse reads to my TBR every month, and reviewing them on this site. I need to read more Alice Walker.

 

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