Following the lives of two black sisters in 1930s America through the letters they send to each other (and God), The Color Purple is Alice Walker’s tragic, heartwarming and empowering story of sisterhood, womanhood and friendship. The protagonist, Celie, lives a very different life to her sister, Nettie. The two are separated at a young age and Nettie travels to Africa with a Minister and his wife to do missionary work. Meanwhile, Celie remains in America, tending to her abusive husband (known only as Mr. ___) and his children, where she becomes infatuated with Mr.__’s singer-mistress, Shug Avery.
I couldn’t fault this book. There is no wasted space and each scene adds a subtle layer of depth and importance to this story. All of the characters grow, no one is a trope or a token, and watching Celie’s transformation as she witnesses the women around her, (Squeak’s quiet defiance, Sofia’s unapologetic belligerence, Shug’s comfortable sexuality), is as inspirational as it is heart-breaking.
Celie’s belief in God is also a growth factor. She begins the novel writing letters to him, and quickly abandons God (believing he has abandoned her) to write letters to Nettie instead. She and Shug speak about their beliefs and Shug insists “God” is not a He, but rather, God is everything.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
Though The Color Purple is undoubtedly a feminist text, the men in the story are given space to grow too. Though married, Mr. __ and Celie do not love one another, but eventually grow to enjoy one another’s company as friends. Mr.__’s son Harpo learns to treat his wife as an equal, and Celie’s son Adam shows the reader that there is hope for a new generation of men who treat women differently.
Alice Walker uses the epistolary element of her novel flawlessly. As I said, I can’t fault this book. The letters build tension as they are sent between the two sisters. They illustrate the passage of time, and the long delays the sisters experience between receiving each other’s letters, missing out on each others lives and growing old apart.
The only, I guess negative, feelings I felt while reading this book was that I wish I had read this earlier in my life. It is a revelation and a relief (though it shouldn’t be) to hear stories of black women in segregated America, as so often their stories are merely backdrops for white hardships (The Help) or black male struggles (Twelve Years a Slave). I wish it had been a compulsory text while I was in high school, as it has so much to offer, so much worth discussing. As such it will be compulsory reading material for my children, of whom I have none, yet.
I read The Color Purple in February as part of the “Our Shared Shelf” book club, set up on Goodreads by Emma Watson. I find book clubs invaluable when it comes to getting inspired on what to read next. I have just started the January book (Gloria Steinhem’s My Life On The Road), so have high hopes that I will enjoy it as much as I did this one.