Saturday, February 9, 2013

Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin



Go Tell it On the Mountain has probably been on my to-read list since 2005, since I discovered The Modern Library 100 Best Novels list.  (I've now read 48 of them.)  Along with Native Son and The Invisible Man, this novel is one of the classics of African-American fiction.

This is a short book, about 250 pages in most editions.  Basically, this is a semi-autobiographical story based on Baldwin's early life.  It's centered around a day in the life of John Grimes, on his 14th birthday.  It's 1935 and he's growing up in Harlem,  where he lives with his parents, baby sister, and younger brother Royal.  His father Gabriel is a preacher, and everyone thinks he'll grow up in his father's footsteps.  He and his father have a difficult relationship, because his father favors his younger, wilder brother.

The story deals with John's spiritual and sexual awakening, and flashes back to his parents, Gabriel and Elizabeth, and his aunt Florence, and how they moved north from their life of poverty in the Deep South.  It's not overtly about racial conflict, but racism plays a big part in their situation and how it shapes their lives.  There's a lot of religion in the novel, but it's also about family dynamics.

Go Tell it On the Mountain was an easier read for me than Native Son, which has some really unpleasant characters doing horrible things, but I don't think Baldwin was trying to make a big social statement like Richard Wright.  I think it's really just a snapshot, a look into people's lives.  I'm not a religious person, so I'll admit that those parts of the book really didn't speak to me and I ended up skimming them somewhat.  What I was really interested in was the family histories, the role of the female characters, and how hard it was for African-Americans at that time.  The characters are really well-developed and I found them very realistic.

This book was the monthly selection for the library's classic book group, and though not everyone had managed to finish the book, we had a really good discussion about religion and how writers portray it in modern novels versus older book.  I'd still like to read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, though I'm a little intimidated by it, because of the length and the subject matter.

Have any of you read Go Tell it On the Mountain?  How about Invisible Man?

This is the second book I've completed for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2013. 

10 comments:

  1. I read The Invisible Man for English class in high school. This was over 30 years ago, so I don't remember much. If I were to re-read it, I think I would do it with a readers' guide. It is a pretty dense book, full of symbolism...not to be read for plot.

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    1. Hmm, might be a good book for our classics group for next year . . . sometimes it's better to read difficult books with a group. I've also consulted Sparknotes online, I'm usually terrible with symbolism, unless it's incredibly obvious.

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  2. I really want to read this, and keep not getting around to it. I read a bunch of Baldwin's uncollected writings last year and was blown away by his writing. It made me wish I'd had to read this book in school so it would have been in my brain all along.

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  3. The writing was really good, I do want to read more of his works. I've heard really good things about Giovanni's Room.

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  4. I read about 30 pages of this a few years ago and got depressed - so I stopped. But I'd like to try again as
    I liked Baldwin's writing.

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    1. Parts of it were sad, but overall, I found it much less depressing than Native Son. The writing was really good, so it's worth sticking with.

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  5. Invisible Man is one of my all-time favorite books, and this one is one I've been meaning to read for years.

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    1. Is Invisible Man a difficult read? Native Son was a fast read, but the story was pretty rough.

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  6. This isn't on my TBR list, but I think it should be. I remember being really struck by Native Son when I read many years ago, and I think Baldwin's story would be meaningful for me.

    >What I was really interested in was the family histories, the role of the female characters, and how hard it was for African-Americans at that time. The characters are really well-developed and I found them very realistic.

    It makes such a difference when characters feel realistic and true--not just symbols.

    It's interesting how a group can talk about a book even when some haven't actually read it! :)

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    1. Oh, we always find something to talk about! Even though we all grew up in different places (and different eras, for some of us) everyone had an interesting story about race relations. I always encourage people to come to the book discussion even if they haven't finished the book. I think if you get people who love books, they'll always find something to discuss and make it interesting.

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