Book: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
In honor of Black History Month, I chose a book about a black woman by a black author – but not just any black author – an educated and celebrated woman, part of the Harlem Renaissance, and a Central Florida native. Zora Neal Hurston‘s history and the history of the town where she lived, Eatonville (now part of Orlando), are just as interesting as the novel she wrote. This, her most popular book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is now celebrating its 75th anniversary year. And on Feb. 2, at the UCF Pegasus Ballroom, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker returns to Eatonville and Orlando for the historic 30th Zora Neale Hurston Festival of Arts and Humanities.
This novel was a surprise for me. Janie Crawford, an African-American woman, relates the events of her life from her early years in west Florida raised by a former-slave grandmother, through three husbands (two died), and her return to her home in Eatonville in her early 40s. Upon her return, she tells her best friend, Pheoby, this tale, which comprises the narrative in the book. The bulk of the story takes place in the 1930s and is compelling and full of local color and Florida references. The pace is a bit slow for a contemporary reader used to faster-paced suspense stories and 50-second sound bites, but it is nonetheless well worth the time to read.
Janie’s tale starts shortly before her grandmother, fearing her own death, arranged a marriage for Janie to a much older man. After her grandmother’s passing, Janie accepted the offer of a traveling young man with potential and an offer of marriage to go to Eatonville, where her new husband became mayor. Together, they built a home and ran a store for 20 years until his death. But never having found a real love match and still in search of her own identity after her husband’s death, Janie sold the store and ran off with a man a decade younger than herself when they both found real affection for each other. They traveled to Jacksonville to marry, then worked seasonal crops in the Lake Okeechobee and Everglades area, where they struggled through a severe hurricane.
Hurston’s writing is very good. I was particularly impressed with her imagery, metaphors and novel ways of describing surroundings, emotions and thoughts. Her sentences and phrases are at times almost poetic. Her dialogue, however, is in early 20th Century, black, southern vernacular – it takes a few pages to get accustomed to that, but it makes the story and characters so much more rich and real.
This book ticked two boxes for me. At under 200 pages, it was a great book for me to read to celebrate Black History Month. And being relatively new to Florida and to Orlando, I appreciated the local history to help me understand my new home a bit better and give me a few places to put on my “plan to visit” list. There are lots of websites to visit to research both Zora Neale Hurston herself as well as her life and all her literary work if you want to dig in further. Happy reading!