—“John I’m not going to ask you why you’ve done these things, partly because I already know, and partly because I don’t believe you do.”
BOOK? . . . Jonah’s Gourd Vine, by Zora Neale Hurston (1934)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical Fiction/Family Saga
ABOUT WHAT? . . . Set in the Post-Reconstruction period in Alabama and Florida, Jonah’s Gourd Vine was Hurston’s debut novel. Semi-autobiographical, it is a fictionalized tale based on Hurston’s direct ancestors. It’s the colorful life story of John Pearson, the son of emancipated slaves, and his struggles to advance himself and achieve security, respectability, and spiritual fulfillment in the face of cultural barriers and irresistible temptations. He is, in short, a human being with the full set of human strengths and weaknesses in an era when much of the human race was not universally regarded as human. And, as the quote above suggests, for whatever innate or instilled reasons, John is a creature of impulse, with little insight into his own fateful actions, and this makes his personal history something a bit out of the ordinary.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . The book is an unadorned portrayal of the lives and culture of rural black Americans in the deep south after Reconstruction. It is a valuable resource, memorializing their language, their lifestyle, their beliefs, their legacy.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Jonah’s Gourd Vine is fast-paced and rollicking, John’s life is such a full-throttle, up hill down hill race that most readers would find it thoroughly entertaining. The problem is that nearly all the dialogue is rendered in slavery-era dialect, which will turn off many readers. But if you can handle the dialect then I certainly recommend it, there is so much wit and wisdom therein that it would be a shame to miss out. The book is pungent with the atmosphere of that long-lost era of the African-American past.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . . Hurston was politically conservative, her book is not a civil rights manifesto in any sense. But she clearly deserves a place of distinction in any anthology of African-American literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and I hope to read much more of her work.