Whatever else The Color Purple has been taken for during the years since its publication, it remains for me the theological work examining the journey from the religious back to the spiritual that I spent much of my adult life, prior to writing it, seeking to avoid.
So begins the preface by Alice Walker. It is indeed a most interesting theological journey on which Ms. Walker takes her protagonist, Celie, as she begins writing to God at age 14. Set in Georgia in the 1930s, Celie is the eldest child in a poor black family, her mammy is ill, and her father begins sexually abusing her. By the 2nd letter, her mammy is dead, and she is pregnant. This is not a pretty story but it is a thoroughly intriguing one; a story about courage and strength, relationships and estrangements, family and not family. It is the story about a connection so strong it can survive torment and hatred, distance and death. It is the story of coming to grips with who God may be and how He connects with people.
This whole story is told through letters. In the beginning, Celie writes about her life to God, partly to practice her writing since her father won’t let her go to school any more as she is with child. She does her best to protect her younger sister, Nettie, from her father but when Mr. ______ , comes courting Nettie, her father refuses to let him have her; he insists Mr. ______ take Celie instead. She has borne 2 children, a boy and a girl, and both of them have disappeared. Mr. ______ treats Celie no better than her father did — he beats her, plus she has all his children from his first wife to take care of, as well as the work in the fields to do. When Nettie tries to escape her father by coming to Celie, Mr.______ thinks he’ll have his way with her; when he’s refused, he says she’ll have to leave. That’s the last Celie hears from her for many years, yet they stay just as close in their hearts and minds as though they were never parted. When Celie gives up on God, she directs her letters to Nettie. Her return to the idea of God comes from a surprising source.
This epistolary novel won the Pulitzer in 1983 and has been acclaimed for how it deals with many issues facing black women in the south in the 30s — racism, sexism, and gender-blurring. But none of these issues was Ms. Walker’s purpose; they were simply the setting in which her theological journey took place. While each of her characters are vividly different, each brings a rich component to the story as they envy, challenge, support, or encourage each other in the complicated extended family relationships that evolve around Celie.
I’m a bit late coming to this book and haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s on my to do list. I’ve heard great things about the movie (starring Whoopie Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey) and have seen some scenes on the Internet but it was pretty disjointed, so I’m looking forward to seeing the actual movie on DVD. The book, however, was spell-binding and, if you haven’t read it yet, you should add it to your list. (The story contains blunt language about sexuality.) Amazing! * * * * *