Banned Book Reviews: The Color Purple, East of Eden

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

The Color Purple is a story told in short letters. Letters, at first, from a barely-literate Celie to God, letters that are little more than raw observations of a brutal, degraded, hopeless life. Letters, later, from Celie’s sister Nettie, reminding Celie of their shared history, relating the progress of Celie’s stolen son and daughter, and telling of Nettie’s life as a missionary in Africa. Later still, letters from Celie to Nettie, tragically undelivered. Finally, letters once again from Celie to God.

At the beginning Celie’s life is so harsh and her writing ability so minimal it takes courage just to keep reading. But Celie grows and her life slowly becomes richer, especially when she meets Shug Avery, blues singer, former lover of Celie’s uncommunicative husband, and eventual lover. Her life begins to open up when Shug helps her find Nettie’s letters, which Celie’s husband has kept hidden from her, and eventually becomes a happy life as she gains her independence and comes to understand people, including those she once hated. Page by page, letter by letter, Celie’s story becomes readable, then engaging, then fascinating, then fulfilling. This is a marvelous book . . . I’m so happy I finally read it.

Why is The Color Purple always near the top of every banned books list? Why do parents’ groups still try to have it removed from school libraries and reading lists? Lots of reasons. Whites hate it because it’s black-centric, and the few whites depicted therein are contemptuous figures. Blacks hate it because it paints a gritty, unflattering picture of poor southern black life, complete with shiftless men, uneducated women, and incest. Bluenoses of all races hate it because there’s sex in it, specifically lesbianism. Oh, and then there’s drugs. And alcohol. And juke joints. And Celie, though she writes to God, doesn’t in fact believe in God, let alone Jesus. The Color Purple is, to be honest, devilishly seductive . . . and dangerous. If you don’t want kids thinking outside the box, you don’t want them reading books like this!

This really is a staggeringly good read. Alice Walker is a brilliant talent. The Color Purple will make you think, and you’ll never forget it.

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

East of Eden was John Steinbeck’s blockbuster novel, a sprawling tale of brothers, fathers, wives, good and evil, love and hate, the end of the 19th century and the beginnings of the 20th, California history, war and peace. The heart of the novel is the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, twice explored . . . first with the brothers Adam and Charles, then again with Adam’s sons Aron and Caleb.

I hadn’t read Steinbeck since college; it’s grand to make his acquaintance again and I’ll certainly now re-read The Grapes of Wrath and some of his other works. Steinbeck tells a hell of a story and I devoured East of Eden, all 602 pages of it, even the longish philosophical discussions between Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, and Lee. I hung on every development in the characters’ lives, happy, excited, or sad right along with them . . . I cared, as if these were people I loved and had grown up with. It’s rare for me, as an adult, to experience fictional characters as real people; Steinbeck had a great gift, and novels like this are few and far between today.

“Ungodly and obscene.” That’s how school board officials in Anniston, Alabama described East of Eden when they banned it in 1982. Really? An extended retelling of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel ungodly?

It’s difficult for a reader in 2010 to discern what was so objectionable about Steinbeck’s work to school officials in Alabama in 1982. One would think they would have been so busy counting each of the 782 instances of the word “fuck” in The Catcher in the Rye they wouldn’t have time left over to worry about the occasional “damn” or “whore” in East of Eden, but apparently book censors never rest.

Personally, I think it would be wonderful if people started reading Steinbeck again.

Read more banned book reviews and posts.

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