by Alice Walker
How can any of us know, really, the inner suffering of any other person? How can we know, really, what it is like to be another person? Even more so, the question is fraught when we're talking about another person who has undergone a transformative experience, a revolutionary experience, a struggle for his or her own respect or very survival. For 21st-century readers, the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century (for most of the 20th century) can seem like a faraway story. Now that America has had its first African-American president, how can we relate to the absence of freedom people experienced back then? That's a rhetorical question of course. It is perfectly apparent that racial justice is still in our future. Indeed, there have been setbacks. For a reader not a member of that community, this moving novel is a tiny window into another's experience. Indeed, isn't that what literature is for?
Meridian is the unusual name for an African-American woman, born in the middle of the century, from the South and of the South. She grows up in a fragmented culture, manages to attend an Atlanta college for young women, and there joins the Movement, the Civil Rights organizing and actions of the 1950s and 1960s. Early on, there are inklings that this will not be a long journey for Meridian. She has a vague wasting sickness, punctuated by periods of paralysis, that seems a metaphor for the state of American culture in her time. We sense that this illness will eventually be fatal. But that would also suggest we don't believe in redemption for American culture. Still, along the way, Meridian witnesses the protests, is beaten up and abused by the police and other reactionary forces, and she endures, walking miles of back roads, registering voters amongst a forgotten people.
But this is a personal tale, too, one of relationships and the unsettled disjointed way in which they come about. We have Truman, an organizer who becomes a friend and lover to Meridian, but who can't settle on his own path. We meet Lynne, a white Jewish woman from New York, who comes South to help organize, and endures her own particular racial journey. Meridian's family, long family histories, the families we make, all of these play a role in the novel. As weighted as the novel sounds, it is surprisingly airy while still being moving, compelling and often quite dark. Walker weaves a good tale, and the reader finds his or herself imagining the lives of these people in the decades beyond the 1976 publication of the book. Recommended.
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