I have just read Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, which was published in 1934. I enjoyed this book very much and have been a fan of Zora’s since I first read “There eyes were watching God” twenty plus years ago. She was very good at capturing the beauty of the lives of black folk in all of its simplicity, difficulty and triumph.
The main character of Jonah’s Gourd Vine is John Pearson, the biracial son of Amy Crittendon. His mother Amy is a feisty woman who is married to Ned Crittendon, a man who epitimizes backwardness. Amy makes a point to challenge Ned’s reading of the world and his negative viewpoint of life in general. She also confront him concerning his negative way with her son John who is not his son.
The time comes for John who is the oldest of Amy’s three boys, to leave home, which is Ned’s and Amy’s house and strike out on his own. He leaves after a dangerous final straw altercation with his stepfather, who despises John for being light skinned, and being favored by his mother. Amy sees that John cannot live in her husband’s house any longer and she encourages him to go “over the creek” to look for “a job of work”.
John’s story starts as he gets that job of work on Alf Pearson’s plantation. He has an open and friendly personality and is able to fit in wherever he goes, winning even the white plantation owner’s favor. John is in the process of discovering himself as he moves in and out of different circles of people. He is generally well-liked and has a powerful way with words. He’s discovering the power of his own voice, and is able to say just the right thing at the right time.
At a point in his young life, he decides to fulfill his dream and go to school. He’s already a teen but he doesn’t let that stop him. While in school he meets and falls deeply in love with a very young, but sassy-smart 11 year old Lucy Potts. Eventually he marries her and they start a life together. Unfortunately for John his strength is is weakness, and he is loved by just about every women he meets. Even after marrying Lucy Potts, the girl he fell head over heals in love with, he still cheats.
The cracks in the armor of John’s wonderfulness appear as his wife Lucy finds out about his cheating and comes to know and understand John for who he truly is, a lustful “natchal man” (natural man) unwilling and/or unable to control his sexual appetites. John looks at the knowing in his wife’s eyes and becomes guilt stricken. The beauty of self discovery becomes a bit tarnished.
Lucy doesn’t give up on him and together they devise a way to try to redeem John. He decides to use his beautiful gift with words to becomes a preacher in an all-black town in Florida. John quickly becomes a very popular and powerful “mand of God”. The Word of God in John’s mouth is full of the fire of satan! For a while, it seems that John has it all, respect, family, money. Yet inspite of himself, he still knuckles under to the base lust in his heart.
Over all this book is full of the poetry and beauty of the black southern voice. When reading Jonah’s Gourd Vine, one can see just how much Zora respected our black culture. Her love for black culture shows in the voices of her black characters as she made a point to display the richness and beauty of the black dialect of that era. Those black Southerners spoke in a way that was full of word play, poetry and proverbs.
As for John’s story, its a powerful depiction of the human spirit striving to reach upward.