My first step from the old white man was trees

The Color Purple
by Alice Walker

When I read the first page of this book I wasn’t sure I could carry on. Walker plunges right into the heart of the awful beginnings of her story. But I made myself continue and within a few pages I was hooked.

The story is told in the form of letters, initially all addressed to God, from Celie. She tells how from the age of 14 she was repeatedly raped by her pa and bore him two children, both taken away from her. This has destroyed her ability to have further children so she is offloaded as a wife to Albert, a man looking for a trouble-free mother to his children. He beats her and makes no secret of his hate for her. Her beloved sister Nettie lives with them briefly before being forced to run away when she rejects Albert’s advances.

It’s all pretty bleak. And then along comes Shug Avery. The love of Albert’s life, she is a nightclub singer and quickly becomes Celie’s first real friend. Finally joy, happiness and the ability to talk openly come to Celie and she gradually finds the strength to make her life what she wants it to be.

Obviously, I knew this from reputation, but I realised it was a few chapters before it is clear that all the characters are black (at least, initially they all are). They are simply poor, ill-educated farm folk. But as Celie gets older and meets more people she learns what it means to be black. She learns about black people in other cities, other countries and even other continents. And she learns about being a woman, how she doesn’t have to be subservient.

Although the book goes very firmly from dark to light, it never gets over-sentimental or mawkish. Celie’s matter-of-fact tone gradually gains humour and worldliness. Always observant, she reports the moments and the conversations that have made her who she is at the end of the story:

“I believe God is everything, say Shug…My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds…it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything…And I laughed and I cried…It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.
Shug! I say.
“Oh, she say, God love them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did…
“God don’t think it dirty? I ast.
“Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love &ndash and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.
“You saying God vain? I ast.
“Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

Now, I’m not religious, but there was something very moving about Shug’s idea of God and I love how it freed her and later Celie to follow their own rules. Not to give too much away, but this book includes some frank talk about sex and some homosexuality, not to mention all of the affairs characters keep having. Which I hadn’t expected and found refreshing. Yes, these are poor black people in the segregated southern USA in I think the 1930s and 1940s (there’s some vague talk about war breaking out in Europe) but take away the poverty and politics and they’re still human beings with hearts to give and break and libidos to follow.

The style of writing took some getting used to. Beside the dialect, Celie doesn’t always name characters or explain a situation clearly until much later. And time was passing far more quickly than I realised. There are sometimes years between letters. Also, the absence of speech marks was sometimes confusing. But looking beyond all that, it is a wonderful book well worth the pain of the early chapters.

First published in the USA in 1983 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

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