Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston This should've been a quick read (it really is once you get used to the Southern dialect), but since work has been crazy and we've had tornadoes everyday for the past few days I haven't been able to focus. So yay, the tornado sirens have finally stopped (for now) and I was able to finish. The only thing I knew about this book before reading it was that it was a famous piece of African American literature and that it was on a bunch of lists of books to read before you die. I was guessing that it would be boring since it's commonly taught in literature classes (I don't have a great history with books that I've been forced to read for classes), but I was pleasantly surprised by how much the story pulled me in and the protagonist (Janie Crawford) gripped my heart.

Janie is extremely observant and is always studying her surroundings. It all starts out with a simple examination of the trees and flowers around her. She notices the birds and the bees around her and how everything is connected and interdependent and something within her seems to awaken (I guess her sexuality) and she ends up kissing a neighborhood boy. Her Nanny sees this and flies into a rage about how she can't end up like her disappointment of a mother and ends up marrying Janie off to an older man with money, Logan Killicks. Janie becomes extremely unhappy since the marriage didn't automatically spark any feelings of love within her (she's a naive 16- or 17-yr-old at this point). She begins to wait patiently for it to kick in, or for anything to turn up to make her feel something. "She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie's first dream was dead, so she became a woman." She finds an escape with ambitious and charming Jody, who takes her off to Eatonville, FL. Soon enough though, she is once again waiting and watching for something better. Jody forces her onto a pedestal and won't allow her to engage with anyone but himself, so she is limited to the boundaries of the store and her house and watches everyone from inside. Janie finally receives the love she's been looking for in a man named Tea Cake (by the way, that is a very difficult name to try to ignore when the plot gets serious). They have a passionate and turbulent marriage with plenty of ups and downs, but it's easy to see that they truly love each other.

Some other reviews talk about how Janie disappointed them because she can't be considered a hero or a very good protagonist because she is so weak and continually lets men control her. I actually enjoyed all those qualities because it made her more genuine and human. I could relate to her - not because I've ever been beaten by a man, but because I could empathize with her reasoning for her actions. Back in the day there wasn't a lot a woman could do but get married and hope that he would be able to support her and hopefully be civil to her. Janie had to go through a couple of stinkers but she finally found a man who loved her and made her happy, and I was rooting for her the whole way.

There wasn't an overwhelming sense of godliness or Christianity from the characters or the community - and that was probably the main reason I put off reading this, because I was scared it'd be loaded with Christian doctrines and characters who tirelessly praise God and his greatness. I didn't want to be preached to, and I'm glad I wasn't. I think the title is mostly just a symbol of the trials that the characters (especially Janie) endure, as well as a reference to the hurricane scenes and how that effected everyone (which is where the title is pulled from).

Zora Neale Hurston writes beautifully. Her descriptions and imagery were like poetry, with beautiful similes interwoven seamlessly throughout the novel. Through the first half of the book, the beginning and closing lines of almost every chapter hit me hard. Hurston somehow wrapped up profound, amazing ideas within the span of one to two sentences and left me wanting more. The woman knows how to make you think.

If you do decide to read this book, I strongly recommend that you read this edition (with the red and beige cover with pink dogwood flowers on it) because it has a wonderful afterword by Louis Gates Jr. with lots of information about the author (from contemporary scholars as well as from the writings of those who knew her personally). Apparently ZNH's life was a lot like Janie's except their personalities were completely different (ZNH was a strong, willful woman who went after whatever she wanted while Janie took a more passive approach and took what life threw at her). I definitely want to read her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road now because it sounds like she was an amazing woman who was way ahead of her time.

Favorite Quotes:

"Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie, Ah'm a cracked plate."

"Love is lak da sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from da shore it meets, and it's different with every shore."

"It's uh known fact, Phoeby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo' papa and yo' mama and nobody else can't tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go to God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves.