Home Book Reviews Their Eyes Were Watching God review for the 1937 Club

Their Eyes Were Watching God review for the 1937 Club

by J. C. Greenway
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This Their Eyes Were Watching God review was written for the 1937 Club, which highlights books published in that year. Head over to Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings to see what everyone is reading – it looks like a bumper year for golden age crime fiction!

Their Eyes Were Watching God review 1937 Club

Although I generally believe that books will find you at the time they are meant to, there are some writers who you read after a long wait and promptly kick yourself for not getting to them sooner. Zora Neale Hurston is one of those writers for me. I was an idiot for not reading her books as soon as I could, so do not make the same mistake and pick up something by her without delay. I have read her non-fiction, essays and short stories and would recommend them all (and hope to review them more fully soon) but for today, from 1937 comes her epic work of fiction, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

When Janie Crawford heads back into town dressed in rough overalls and without the younger man she left with, the local gossips’ tongues get busy wagging. Her old friend Pheoby Watson heads over to Janie’s with a plate of food and a willing ear to let Janie tell her what’s gone on and that’s where the story begins. What a tale it is.

Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf, with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.

Growing up close to a white family her grandmother, Nanny, works for, Janie never realises she’s different to them until one day she sees a group photograph. Not long after, Nanny catches her kissing a boy over the back gate and packs her off to be married to an older farmer, in an attempt to give her some of the security in life that her mother and grandmother were never able to enjoy. Reluctantly going along with the plan, Janie soon begins questioning whether love should be part of marriage. Her husband sees her as more of a domestic help and Nanny tells her not to fuss too much about love so long as she’s being looked after. But when Joe Sparks with his city clothes and dream of moving to a town that Black people are building for themselves (based on Hurston’s real hometown) comes walking down her road, Janie knows it is an opportunity and grabs it with both hands.

Joe – or Jody sometimes – is a man with big ideas and big plans, and it isn’t long before he’s the mayor and running a general store, a respected man in the town. Janie is a kind of trophy to him, useful as long as she’s enhancing his status among the other men but not much more. Once even that dynamic between them shifts, it isn’t long before she realises her second marriage is no more fulfilling than her first one.

She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels… She got nothing from Jody except what money could buy, and she was giving away what she didn’t value.

What happens to Janie next should be kept for when you read the book, but without spoiling too much, it’s fair to say life isn’t done with Janie yet, with space on the branches of that great tree for more love, life and natural disasters than one woman should have to bear. As it’s the American South in the 1930s, racism is everywhere, including in Janie’s blood. If you have been following some of the conversations in books and other media about how sexism and racism entwine, or on topics like colourism, there is both a feeling of what a modern writer Hurston is, and a shameful indictment of how little things have changed since she was writing. The way Black communities in the book are impacted more by the (real-life event) Okeechobee hurricane had echoes in Hurricane Katrina for me.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a story of Black women, as told from woman to woman, be it Janie talking to Pheoby or Nanny telling Janie her remembrances of the Civil War, reminding us how few generations there are between slavery and Janie’s time, and back then and now. It reminded me of the intergenerational story in Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing. It’s written in a colloquial, dialect style which brings to life the way the characters talk to each other. An anthropologist by training, Hurston had a great ear for dialect, and I think her way of rendering the accents makes for a more vivid read. However, some of her fellow Harlem Renaissance writers disagreed and the style fell out of favour for a while, with some feeling it was a caricature. Instead, it almost makes you feel like you’re sitting next to Pheoby, listening to Janie telling it in your ear. I love Zora Neale Hurston’s way with words, from capturing the townspeople sitting around Jody’s store teasing each other, to Janie’s young man telling her about a night on the town, to the atmosphere after Janie and Joe have had a row where ‘the stillness was the sleep of swords.’ Or how about this description of a friend’s woman:

… git her good and mad and she’ll wade through solid rock up to her hip pockets.

If that expression isn’t currently in use, perhaps it should be!

Janie ends up a long way away from the life she expected or the one that others had chosen for her, but through it all she finds a way to live it her way. The revival of interest in Zora Neale Hurston’s work is a gift to readers, not least because we get to spend some time in her unbreakable heroine’s company.

 


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