Classics Project Book #2 - Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

“You got de keys to de kingdom.” – Tea Cakes

What brought me to Their Eyes Were Watching God were two amazingly intelligent and talented women who shared a devotion to the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston. In an interview with Dr. Brown on African American Legends , they discuss how they came to write the middle-grade novel about Hurston’s childhood. Something interesting they talk about in the interview is Zora’s history with Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was a primarily black town, inhabited and governed by African-Americans. That’s virtually unheard of during the early 20th Century. Hurston grew up in a community of equals and according to one of the authors interviewed “coming from that context in which there was black autonomy, [Hurston] never had this sense of black inferiority... inside of herself she carried that kingdom.” I thought this was really interesting. Also, the authors enthusiasm for Zora Neale Hurston was infectious and I knew I just had to try one of Hurston’s books.

I guess it's been quite a long time since I have done serious analysis of literature and when I came to Their Eyes Were Watching God I was a bit rusty. What threw me off perhaps was the dialect in the dialogue spoken by the different characters. It took some getting used to. I'm never one to turn down a linguistic challenge so for the first few chapters I read the dialogue out loud until I became used to it. However, it did slow down my reading overall and this book took a lot longer than I would have liked. The beautiful poetic language at the beginning of each chapter was something I longed more for as I continued to read. Perhaps there is another Hurston novel, not so heavy on the dialogue with more of the poetic prose that I could read?

What I enjoyed about the novel was the intimacy with the characters. We are right in Southern Florida, traveling alongside the main character Janie as she moves from husband to husband and town to town. I felt like I was right there with the characters, fully immersed in their world.

However, I lost any sense of theme and I never got the bigger picture. I appreciate the afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at the end of the Harper Perennial edition. He states at one point that Janie was an object with her first two husbands and only found her own personal identity and became a subject when she married her third husband Tea Cake. I guess I could see this if I really compare all three husbands. Tea Cake adores Janie in a way that her other two husbands didn't. I am not sure what the feminist or anti-feminist message is here. Janie was held back from knowing her true self because of her relationships with men? Or Janie needed a man in order to become her true self?

Personally, I could relate to the book because of my own romantic relationship with my soon-to-be Husband. Like Janie, I discovered that relationships are never what we want them to be and they are a lot harder to maintain than we expect. Janie enters her last relationship at an advanced age and with some good life experience under her belt. This allows her to be more clear-minded when making the decision to be with Tea Cake. I met my fiance when I was in my late '20s and by that point I had already lived on my own, had finished my education (including post-graduate) and already had an established career. I was in a much better position to make a big life decision at this point than I would have been several years earlier.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a new favorite but it hasn't put me off reading another work by Zora Neale Hurston in the future.

Classics Project Book #1: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

This is part of The Classics Club Challenge.

Let me preface this review by saying that I never had any interest in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz until Audible came out with their new A-List collection. I watched this clip of Anne Hathaway narrating the book and was instantly sold. I love the voices she gave the characters and I’m a sucker for a good narrator. The narrator really makes or breaks an audio book and no matter how good a book is, a terrible narrator will ruin it for anybody. When I signed up for Audible, I used my very first credit on Anne Hathaway’s narration of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

Before I read/listened to the book, I had a sour history with The Wizard of Oz (1939) the movie. I found the movie quite bizarre in ways that I didn’t like. To me the colors, the costumes and everything about it was just plain garrish and weird. Very unappealing. I also don’t do very well with speculative or fantastical fiction of any sort. But there are exceptions and this book is definitely an exception.

In the documentary These Amazing Shadows (2011)  , there is some discussion about The Wizard of Oz. The documentary focuses on the National Film Registry which The Wizard of Oz happens to be part of. Director John Waters, one of the many talking heads in the documentary, said that he always wondered why Dorothy wanted to leave the Land of Oz to go back to boring old Kansas. If it were up to him, he would stay in Oz! That’s a really good point. Why did Dorothy want to go back to Kansas?

At the beginning of the book, there is a very somber portrait painted of Dorothy’s Aunt Em, whose sparkle has left her, and Uncle Henry, who never laughed. And a cyclone has just swept through her town carrying Dorothy and her little dog Toto and their whole house off the foundation and into the skies. Doesn’t sound like a great situation to me.

Even the Scarecrow says “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”

Dorothy’s response: “That is because you have no brains... No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

Ahh! There is the crux. Good ole dust bowl America. Land of the free, home of the brave. All those exotic lands far away are savage in comparison to the civilized and orderly America. Poor little Dorothy has been brain washed to believe that Western culture (specifically America and even more specifically Kansas) is better than all the “others”. And that’s what everything non-Kansas, non-America is. It’s the “other”.

Dorothy’s penchant for wanting to go home to boring old Kansas didn’t ruin the book for me. In fact, I enjoyed it immensely. Reading the book I could picture characters much differently than portrayed in the movie. Dorothy was much younger in my mind and the Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man/Woodman were less humanoid. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that Dorothy’s shoes were silver not red and the red was only added in the movie to take advantage of Technicolor as they would pop more on screen. They also became very iconic in a way that perhaps silver shoes could not. In my opinion, I like the silver shoes much better possibly because they are so different from what people identify with the story.

Another thing I noticed is that the plot of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is very reminiscent of a video or computer game. For example, Dorothy acquires the golden cap which she can use 3 times to summon the winged monkeys to come to her rescue. The secret to destroying the Wicked Witch of the West was to dump a bucket of water on her. The lion has to kill the large spider in the forest to become king of the beasts as well as to advance to the next level, err I mean to move forward in their journey. The plot contains lots of obstacles and knowledge is required in order to advance. Reading the book reminded me of the 1990s Sierra game series King’s Quest which I played as a teenager. I wonder how much stories like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz influenced gaming.

Overall, this book was immensely enjoyable. I adored the language, the characterizations, the mythology, the structure of the plot and how delightful and fun yet thrilling it is to read a fantasy book like this.
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