Page count: 229 | Published: 1934 | Rating: 3* stars (*2.5 rounded up to 3)
Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel, originally published in 1934, tells the story of John Buddy Pearson, “a living exultation” of a young man who loves too many women for his own good. Lucy, his long-suffering wife, is his true love, but there’s also Mehaley and Big ‘Oman, as well as the scheming Hattie, who conjures hoodoo spells to ensure his attentions. Even after becoming the popular pastor of Zion Hope, where his sermons and prayers for cleansing rouse the congregation’s fervor, John has to confess that though he is a preacher on Sundays, he is a “natchel man” the rest of the week. And so in this sympathetic portrait of a man and his community, Zora Neale Hurston shows that faith, tolerance, and good intentions cannot resolve the tension between the spiritual and the physical. That she makes this age-old dilemma come so alive is a tribute to her understanding of the vagaries of human nature.
It took me a whole month to read this book…suffice to say I really struggled with it. I wanted to love JGV but it required a lot of hard work; something I usually enjoy, especially if as a result, I’m rewarded with amazing narrative or a lesson. I finished JGV with a sigh of relief; it’s a book I’m highly unlikely to read again.
JGV focuses on John Buddy Pearson, his wife Lucy and John’s many women on the side. We follow John on his pursuit of work in the reconstruction era; over time he becomes a preacher and a mayor of a black town in Florida.
The book covers a lot of ground – colourism (and privilege – John is described as ‘yallar’), voodoo rituals, gender roles; it’s strengths lie in the wide ranging examination of black community/experiences following the abolition of slavery. That examination also leads to some of the book’s weaknesses, in particular the fact it reads more like an anthropological study rather than a novel – characters are introduced, say their part and are either bumped off or never make a reappearance. I enjoyed some of the observations ZNH made but didn’t like the narrative flow, it felt choppy in parts and wasn’t cohesive.
Another element I found challenging was the dialect – if you struggled with ‘Barracoon’ or ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ you’ll need to really take your time with JGV and possibly read it out loud. I re-read passages so often that I lost interest in the plot.
The book hasn’t aged well; there are a few elements that will put people off (e.g. John’s pursuit of 11 year old Lucy) – however, in spite of my complaints I enjoyed JGV but wasn’t blown away.