My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is another one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years. I knew of Alice Walker’s fame from Women’s Studies courses, but I put off reading The Color Purple, I think, because I was afraid it would be unbearably depressing, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The story follows Celie, a child sexual assault victim, a child bride to an abusive husband, and a woman-loving-woman in a world that has no place for her. Celie writes letters first to God, and then later to her estranged sister Nettie. In sparse prose to match her lack of formal education, Celie tells the heartbreaking story of her life, later discovering that Nettie has been writing her letters from her post as a missionary in Africa.
The Color Purple is filled with awful occurrences, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say everyone should read it. Yet, for all the heartbreak, there are moments of warmth, love, and truth that jump out from the page. As Walker details in the brief Preface, Celie’s story is about the journey from traditional (white) Christian religion to a spiritual, pagan understanding of the world. While it might sound hokey, this journey is a beautiful thing to behold. Through conversation with her best friend, Shug Avery, Celie learns to let go of God as a white man and to find God in everything. As Shug says,
“God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit. … It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything…Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.”
Thus, in abandoning her understanding of God as a white man, Celie is able to overcome the sorrow of her life and find happiness. Even when she believes she has lost the love of her life, Celie recognizes she learns how to be content anyway: “And then I figure this the lesson I was supposed to learn.”
The Color Purple isn’t a depressing book, to me. For all the moments of total heartbreak and abuse in the various characters’ lives, there are more moments of clarity and love. Celie is not a victim, but a survivor. She takes what is handed her and learns to find the beauty in her circumstances. In my mind, she’s a hero.