Author: Alice Walker
Genres: Historical Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: June 1982
I had an old copy of this on my bookshelf in Newfoundland for years. I can remember starting it, but I don’t think I ever finished it, so I was really happy to return to it with my book club in time for the movie adaptation coming out later this year.
The Colour Purple is an American classic, and with good reason. It’s set in the South from the early 1900’s, to around WWII (roughly 1910-1940). It’s about civil rights, but from a different perspective than we normally see. It’s told in a series of letters written by Celie, an uneducated, poor black girl who lives with her Ma and Pa. After being raped several times by her Pa, starting at 14, her children are taken from her. She’s separated from her sister Nettie, her only friend, and is eventually married off to another abusive man, Albert.
Over the years, Celie writes to God about the injustices she faces, and eventually to Nettie when they are reconciled as adults. It’s an examination of how racism and abuse were still heavily present in the south during this time and how a group of women come to find support in one another to become better versions of themselves.
Most notable is the writing style. Alice Walker writes Celie’s letters from the point of view of a young women with limited schooling, who is confused and overcome by the world around her. It’s extremely hard to read at first, both because of the poor grammar and spelling used in the writing, but also because Celie’s experiences are so unbelievably painful and her confusion around them causes her to become very detached from what happens to her. Celie has such limited ownership over her life that I actually thought the setting was about 100 years earlier, during slavery. However, it becomes apparent pretty fast that slavery was ended in name only and is very much still alive in Celie’s life.
Overall I thought this book was quite radical for when it was published and for the content it addresses. We are introduced to a number of black women and they all bring something very unique to the story. While Celie is very much a victim – we also have headstrong Sofia, confident Shug, compassionate Nettie, and tolerant Mary Agnes. These women move in and out of one another’s lives, but all become a source of support and growth for Celie. Most impactful for me was probably Sophia and Nettie.
I thought Sophia’s story was really interesting because it showcased “modern” slavery and how all it took was for Sophia to stand up for herself once to then wind up in prison for a decade before being forced into indentured servitude. On the other end of the spectrum, I liked Nettie’s story because it showcased the complicated dynamics of being black in America versus being black in Africa and how the two perceive each other. Plus, it examines how sexism is the same on either continent.
So overall, I really liked this. It takes a little bit of time to used to the writing style and I found the timeline really confusing, but it gave me a lot to think about and I can understand why it has become a classic. I’m glad the movie doesn’t come out until the end of the year though because it’s a very emotional read and I don’t think I’ll be ready to revisit the story for another few months.