A couple of years ago I fell in love with the music and voices from the (at that time) currently running broadway revival of The Color Purple, and I realized that while I knew about this book and the subsequent movie adaptation, I had never read nor watched it. But here it fit perfectly into the bingo square for frequently challenged or banned books, so no time like the present. I can’t recall if anyone I knew had read it as a part of our high school curriculum, but I feel like if I had, I really would not have appreciated it at that time, or understood as many of the implications and still hugely important themes.
The Color Purple is told through a series of letters from two sisters, Celie and Nettie, from a young age and over the course of decades. Celie begins with writing letters to God, which later turn to Nettie writing letters to Celie after the two women become separated in their lives. Celie lives a difficult life, starting in poverty and having two children from her father that are taken away from her, and then married off to an abusive husband. Over the years you see Celie struggle to stand up for herself, but also find herself becoming intrinsic to the lives of this new and expanding family she finds herself in. On the other side of the world, Nettie has joined a missionary trip to Africa, wherein she tries to be a force of education for the people there. We see how these two sisters’ lives change over their time apart, wondering where the other is, but also how despite the different circumstances, they both go through questions of love, identity, their relationship with God, and their place within a society which deems them to be the lowest on the social ladder.
On an emotional level, this is not the easiest book to get through, as it comes out swinging right out the gate to punch you in the guts, and continues to bring the hits with subjects including rape, domestic violence, racism, sexism, incest, poverty, education, and more. And you may think, but why would I want to read about all that kind of suffering? Because throughout it all, Celie, Nettie, and others manage to hold onto their hope: it is a book about the tenacity of the human spirit and what we are able to survive. It is also about what we are willing to forgive, and why: we all have rightful reasons to be angry, but what do we choose to do with that anger? Sometimes it’s important to hold on to, in order to protect ourselves, but sometimes understanding and a slight release is the way to go as well. It is always so hard to navigate these concepts, but it is done beautifully within this novel. Most importantly, however, this book shows how important and strong the bonds between women can be, and how they help us understand our worth in the world (specifically, the bonds between these women of color who understand so intrinsically the hardships that one another face in this sadly racist and misogynistic world).
There is a sadness, but also a sense of strength to this novel, and while I’m not always a fan of books whose plots unravel through letters or correspondence, it works very well here. The only difficulty I had at times was with sometimes understand who was speaking during certain portions of Celie’s writing, as she has a much different style and voice than even Nettie does in her writings. I also realized how deeply ingrained certain ways of life in terms of relationships and families are in my brain after years of being told that this is how things are, so at times I was a little curious and confused as to some of the ways these characters approached their lives and relationships.
Ultimately, however, it was well worth my time to finally read The Color Purple, and I completely understand how it has been so enduring and become seen as such a pivotal work through all of the different mediums it has come to be recreated in. Now, perhaps it is time for me to finally watch the notable film adaptation as well.
CBR10 Bingo Square: Fahrenheit 451