|The great Alice Walker|
PBS recently aired a fascinating documentary on the writer Alice Walker who rose literally from a hardscrabble existence to reverence as writer and activist. I have always been a fan of her clear prose and rich characters, and I was reminded that I had never read Meridian, her second novel, which is now available for e-readers, as are all her works.
While The Color Purple, The Temple of My Familiar, and Possessing the Secret of Joy are novels worthy of their accolades and readership, I found this early work especially interesting as I felt I was taking Walker's journey to activism with her.
As an aside, when Possessing the Secret of Joy came out, I decided not to read it, the thought of a novel about clitoral mutilation just too hard to bear, but my daughters, who knew I liked great fiction, bought it for me for Mother's Day, so of course, like all the art on the fridge, I had to comply. The great surprise: one of the most fantastic books I've read and yes, deeply embedded with joy despite the subject.
When you re-read a great writer, you nestle into their prose as if you've just run into an old friend. Walker never manipulates her reader, she just tells it like it is. Taking place largely during the sixties, a young woman is thrust into the harsh realities of sex and racism too soon to make sense of it, at first. Living in a small southern black community, she encounters civil rights fighters in black and white, and discovers the depth of the divide between the races, while also discovering her own desire to make a difference.
However the path to change for Meridian, like her people, is fraught with obstacles, not the least of which is her own community, filled with an assortment of unusual and fascinating characters.
"The majority of black townspeople were sympathetic to the Movement from the first, and told Meridian she was doing a good thing... Her mother however was not sympathetic... God separated the sheeps from the goats, and the blacks from the whites."
Meridian is the embodiment of truth. She suffers physically for her own and others' sins: a lightning rod for the storms around her. She struggles to forgive and to be forgiven. She longs for what she cannot describe. The man in her life, Truman, who also evolves over the decade, abandons her after a heated affair for a long-term relationship with a white woman, Lynne, whom he also ultimately abandons in the hopes of rekindling his relationship with Meridian, who by then has found her voice and her mission.
Lynne, like many whites and Jews who supported the civil rights movement, is one of the more terrific characters, for me, as Walker digs deep into her psyche, revealing her motives for activism: a woman who suffers for the oppression perpetrated by her people. Like Germans who sheltered Jews during WWII, were they compassionate or were they compensating for the sins of their nations? Walker also deftly portrays the mixed feelings among towards the whites who invaded their movement and some, like Lynne, who took their men as well.
"By being white, Lynne was guilty of whiteness. Then the question was, is it possible to be guilty of color?"
In my own novel, "Colors of the Wheel" I explore contemporary challenges of race, and novels like Meridian that reflect on the civil rights movement confirm that much has changed, and too much hasn't.