The Color Purple book review
“He never had a kine word to say to me. Just say You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t. First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my titties.”
This is what Alice Walker calls “folk speech”, the language of the oppressed – in particular, the oppressed African-Americans of rural Georgia. Much of The Color Purple is written in this particular dialect. It’s strong, effective, and at times quite beautiful. It is the voice of Celie, who narrates the story through her letters to God, letters she begins writing when she’s 14 and pregnant:
“Dear God,” she writes, “I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.”
What is happening is that she is pregnant, once again, thanks to her father, Alfonso. After raping her he warns her to keep it a secret. “You better not never tell nobody but God,” he says. “It’d kill your mammy.”
She gives birth to a son and a daughter, both of whom are taken away and, presumably, killed. Her ailing mother blames her for the pregnancies; she dies, cursing her on her deathbed. Alfonso then forces her into a loveless marriage to a widower looking for someone to take care of his children. Albert, whom Celie refers to as Mister, is still in love with his old sweetheart, Shug Avery, a sexy lounge singer. Shug and Albert were lovers once, but when he refused to marry her because of her dubious reputation, she left him. Not being in love with her husband, Celie bears no ill will toward Shug and, in fact, having seen her photograph, she feels a strong connection with this woman she’s never met.
Albert treats Celie as every other man in her life has treated her: he beats her, uses her for sex when he has to, makes her life a misery. As does his son, Harpo. When Celie’s pretty younger sister, Nettie, runs away from home she takes refuge with Celie and her husband. While there, she urges Celie to fight, to stand up for herself. But, “I don’t know how to fight,” Celie says. “All I know how to do is stay alive.”
In order to protect Nettie from Albert’s amorous advances, Celie arranges for her to be taken in by Samuel and Corinne, a local missionary couple. They leave for Africa taking Nettie with them, unaware that their adopted son and daughter are actually Celie’s children. In time, Nettie works this out, but the letters she writes to Celie are hidden from her and she eventually believes her sister may be dead.
Celie’s life slowly begins to change for the better when Shug Avery comes back to town to sing at a local bar. A sensuous, larger-than-life figure, Shug is pretty much the polar opposite of Celie. Where Celie is plain, submissive, and compliant, Shug is glamorous, assertive and outspoken. When she falls ill, Albert takes her into his house and Celie becomes her nurse. Although Albert and Shug are still in love, she and Celie become friends, then lovers. Through Shug, Celie learns to feel real sexual pleasure, and Shug becomes a strongly nurturing mentor to the younger woman. She encourages Celie to use her sewing skills to start a successful business, and intercedes with Albert to treat Celie more kindly. With Shug as her role model, Celie begins to assert her independence.
Shug Avery isn’t the only strong female character in the story: Albert’s son, Harpo, marries a feisty young woman named Sofia who will never back down from a fight. When she gets into a physical fight with the Mayor, she’s beaten by the police, leaving her with broken ribs, a cracked skull, and blind in one eye. She is sentenced to 12 years in jail where the conditions are so harsh she almost dies. Eventually, she’s allowed to serve the rest of her sentence as the Mayor’s servant, doing all the housework and caring for the children. Her own children, meanwhile, are raised by Harpo’s new woman, Mary Agnes, whom he calls Squeak.
It’s Shug who discovers the cache of letters written to Celie by Nettie over the years. The women steam the letters open and read them, and Nettie’s letters dominate the second half of the book. Although the information in these letters are interesting for their historical and social detail we miss the strength and cadence of Celie’s voice. Nettie and the missionaries are living in a small village somewhere in Liberia with a tribe of Africans called the Olinkas. Before you waste time searching for the Olinkas on the internet, you should know the name is fictitious; Walker has used the Olinkas to shed light on customs and traditions prevalent in Africa at the time, and to compare and contrast them with life in the States. The Olinkas don’t believe girls should be educated, and are shocked that the missionary group includes women. While they generally treat their children with love and respect, girls are expected to stay home and help with the housework, and are subject to ritual scarification and genital mutilation.
None of this is surprising, and to my mind it lessens the impact of the book. It was a mistake, I think, to abandon Celie halfway through the narrative. Although Walker comes back to her and wraps things up in a satisfactory manner at the end, Nettie’s letters are, in the words of another reviewer, “lackluster and intrusive”.
When Walker began writing The Color Purple, she was working at Ms. Magazine as an editor. She had published several books of poetry and two collections of short stories, but in this book she wanted to write about her immediate ancestors: her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Born in a rural farming town in Georgia, she was the daughter of poor sharecroppers, themselves the children and grandchildren of slaves. She wanted to tell their stories:
“In most literature, the lives of people I knew did not exist. My mother, for instance, was nowhere in the literature, and she was all over my heart, so why shouldn’t she be in the literature? . . . If you deny people a voice, their own voice, there’s no way you’ll ever find out who they were. And so they are erased.”
The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the first for a black woman; it has sold 5 million copies, been translated into 25 languages and was made into a movie that grossed almost $150 million. For Walker, the rewards have been mixed: she’s been accused of betraying her race, and of feeding stereotypical images of violent black men. The book was kept off school reading lists not just because of the violence but also because of the sexual relationship between Shug and Celie, and several black writers have criticised the “overemphasis” on black male brutality.
In a video posted on the Huffington Post website, Alice Walker revealed what she hopes readers will take away from the book:
“What I would like people to understand when they read The Color Purple is that there are all these terrible things that can actually happen to us and yet life is so incredibly magical and abundant and present that we can still be very happy”.
In this, I feel, Walker has been successful. You come away from The Color Purple feeling uplifted, if not, in my case, wholly satisfied.