Another book club, another book I should totally have already read. This one a little more drastically, though… I was in fact assigned to read this for a class in college, and in fact I wrote a term paper partially based on this book and got an A on it, but I had never read more than the minimum required to write said paper and remembered none of it.
But actually I think it was probably more interesting to me now than it would have been oh those many, many years ago, because the book is set entirely in Florida and very very partially in my adopted home of Jacksonville, so not only did I get to read a classic story but I got to learn more about the history of my current surroundings! I say I don’t like history every time I read a historical novel, but I suppose I have to admit to finding bits and pieces of it fascinating.
Which is good, because this historical stuff is really important to the novel. It’s one of them literary novels that doesn’t really have a contained story to it, but instead ruminates on the life of a mixed-race dreamer girl called Janie living in an urbanizing state in the early 1900s. I’m not sure if that specific time is ever pinned down, but the book was published in 1937, so not later than that?
The urbanizing state part was super interesting to me. Janie travels from the Panhandle to Central Florida, briefly to Jacksonville, and then down to the Everglades, and you can see the vast differences between these parts of the state then and now. Central Florida (before Disney World!) is just this vast expanse of nothing where Janie’s husband can use his modest dollars to build and run an entire town. The Everglades area near Lake Okeechobee is like California during the gold rush, if you like your gold in the form of beans. It is nuts to think that these places that were essentially wild eighty years ago are chock full of suburban subdivisions and snowbird winter homes today.
The dreamer girl part was less interesting to me, largely because there is so much less variation in Janie than in her surroundings, which now that I write it down seems to possibly have been kind of the whole point. So it goes. Anyway, Janie starts off as this dreamy teenager who just wants to, like, have epiphanies under pear trees (I admit that I do not understand this part at all), but quickly gets married off to a wealthy guy who’s good for Janie’s pocketbook but not for her mental or physical health. So naturally, she runs off with a handsome man who turns out also to be good for her pocketbook but terrible for her independence as a human being. Eventually he dies, and she goes off again with a man who seems to love her very much but still beats her and searches for the ulterior motive in all of her actions. I’m not exactly sure what Hurston is trying to say with Janie’s inability to find a man who cares about her brains, but my takeaway is that you should maybe look into this aspect of a relationship before running off and marrying someone. Good advice, self.
There are so many parts to this story that I found myself utterly baffled by, including toward the end a giant but brief hurricane and a giant but brief court trial, and I think that maybe I should have read this book during that college class after all, when there would have been someone to explain it all to me. I bet there’s a Cliff’s Notes on this somewhere, maybe I’ll go read that? But even without really getting the story, I did like Hurston’s writing style (even the dialect!) and I enjoyed the reading experience very much.
Recommendation: I mean, you should probably read this, it’s an important book for some reason that Cliff’s Notes will undoubtedly explain to me someday.