Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The son of a preacher man

Current book: Go Tell It on the Mountain
Pages read: 9 - 90

Ok, the first problem with this book is that I constantly have "Go Tell It on the Mountain" stuck in my head. It's kind of an issue.

The novel itself is kind of...odd...so far. I don't really know what Baldwin is trying to say just yet, but I think he's very, very angry. My initial impression is that he hates religion, but it may just be that he hates the oppression that religion can represent, especially to someone who's been raised in a family where it's used as an excuse for abuse and control.

So, John, the 14-year-old son of Baptist preacher living in Harlem, is questioning his faith. His father, Gabriel, beats everyone in the family and constantly tells them what they can and cannot do. For his whole life, John's accepted that Jesus and the church will be his future, but he's starting to think that the "holy life" - praying, abstaining from pleasures like movies and alcohol, devoting one's life to Jesus - is not the life that he wants to live. Soon after John's thoughts begin to head this way, his brother, Roy, is stabbed. It brings the family to a crisis in which his father, mother, and aunt have a huge fight about the way Gabriel treats the family. As a result, John's aunt, Florence, comes to Gabriel's church to pray for salvation, something which she has never done before.

At that point, we get a little backstory on the family. Gabriel and Florence were raised by their mother, a former slave, and never got along. Florence hated Gabriel and hated living in the poor, rural south. After many years of promising herself that she'd get out, she bought a train ticket to New York and left their mother on her deathbed for Gabriel to look after.

That's it so far. Like I said, Baldwin seems very angry, as much about the place of blacks in America as the fact that religion can be used to manipulate them. He's not entirely against religion, I think, but rather is against its use as a different kind of whip and chains in the black community - as a new, self-inflicted slavery. (I may be going too far with that metaphor, but I don't think so.) We'll see what happens between John and Gabriel, which looks to be the central conflict of the story. I don't think it'll be pretty.

As far as writing goes, it's quick and engaging and does a good job of creative multiple, convincing perspectives. John is a little hard to relate to just because of the extremity of his hatred towards his father. That said, his yearning for the comfort of faith and his inability to experience it is compelling. Speaking as an agnostic, I've had the experience myself: that bewilderment that results from understanding that there's a group of people that seems to get this great comfort out of something that continues to elude you, and that seems not only far-fetched, but, in fact, impossible.

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