- Continuing my exploration of critically acclaimed books, this is ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker.
It was very hard to read ‘The Colour Purple’ without how I remember the film version making me feel. I don’t, thankfully, remember much except that it was everywhere, there was hype and awards galore (Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Whoopi Goldberg), and I liked it, eventually.
The book is not an easy one to read. The language and writing style is very different to anything I’ve read before. Each chapter appears as a letter, or prayer, from the story’s narrator, Celie. As a poor and uneducated black teenager in 1930’s southern US state of Georgia, she narrates stories of racial, physical, and sexual abuse, from the wider Georgian community as well as from within her own African-American one.
As the story starts she’s already been raped and made pregnant by her father, who took her first child away and, she believes, killed it. Her second child meets the same fate, which leads her mother to curse her on her deathbed. From a pretty poor start she is sold to Mister in place of her younger sister Nettie, who her father wants to keep at home for his own sexual appetite. With Mister she has to manage his children from his first wife as well as his house and unwanted sexual advances.
Through the changing times the stories continue to the next generation, on to Mister’s son Harpo and his desperate attempts to control his wife, Sofia. Celie admires and looks up to Sofia’s defiance and refusal to be dominated, but through misguided advise to both of them, and her own fear (and possible respect?) of her husband Mister, she makes matters worse for Harpo and Sofia. With the arrival of Misters long-term mistress and lounge-singer Shug Avery it sets the scene for a strong bond between Shug and Celie.
The stories continue to grow with Harpo’s new girlfriend, who turns out to be the mixed-race daughter of the sheriff, ends up being raped by her father when she tries to get Sofia released from a 12 year prison sentence.
The story takes a turn when Celie discovers letters from her sister Nettie that had been hidden by Mister all these years. She discovers her two children, fathered by the man she thought was her father, were sold to missionaries. Through further twists and turns in all their stories Celie, Shug, and Sofia leave and settle in Tennessee where Celie learns of her husbands change in fortune and her step-fathers death.
Returning to her childhood home sees Celie’s children and sister return for the first time in thirty years. Ending on an apparently positive note does not mean it’s the end of the story though. Knowing (very) little of US history I know the early 60’s is not a good time for African-Americans in America, with segregation and open abuse commonplace among the communities and people the characters will come in contact with.
The whole story, if it is an accurate portrayal of US history, is quite shocking. Incestuous and violent relationships seemed commonplace, strong women battered into submission or worse, and figures of authority and respect abusing their position.
Celie is not an educated woman, which is highlighted in the short ‘letters’ she writes to God and language and spelling she uses. What I love about the book is the way the writing changes as Celie grows up, grows in confidence (eventually), and grows in experience. The chapters / letters get longer as the story progresses, the sentence structures improve, and by the end the general tone and outlook of Celie is far more up-beat or positive.
Despite the subject matter I enjoyed ‘The Colour Purple’. As much a history lesson as a novel, there’s a lot to take away about the inner strength and resolve even the poorest or supposed weakest have. This has put other stories and films into context, making me more aware of the plight and ‘battles’ the ethnic minorities had in order to be treated as equals, even among their own communities.
Held my interest: 7/10
Captured my imagination: 6/10
Worth reading: 7/10