Since I went to high school in the 1980s, of course I’ve heard of The Color Purple, Alice Walker’s 1982 novel that won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into an Oscar-winning movie a couple of years later. But I never read it (or saw the movie), and had no more than a vague idea of what it was about — and that it was in some ways controversial. When the Folio Society edition came out last year, it seemed a perfect time to put an end to my ignorance.
Thus I met Celie, Shug, Sofia, Nettie, and their husbands and lovers and relatives and friends, a whole world of people, with whom Walker describes her relationship as that of a “medium.” This seems to me neither fanciful nor deranged, but an accurate description of what an author does when she brings such a work of imagination to life. These people do live, even if they have never walked in this form on the earth. And the author brings them to us by hearing and reporting their voices, through which they come alive in our minds again.
The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, and therefore entirely composed of the voices of its characters, conveyed through letters. We first hear from Celie, who writes to God because she thinks no one else can or wants to hear her. Her honest and heartbreaking letters tell of her neglected upbringing, which includes the death of her mother, rape by a family member, and the loss of her resulting children, who are taken away and given to another woman, while Celie is married against her will to a man who only wants her as a household drudge. Her beloved sister Nettie is also lost to her, although a twist later in the book restores her letters to Celie and brings her hope for a joyful reunion.
Celie and Nettie write very differently, and have led very different lives — one with a limited range of movement in rural Georgia, the other traveling as a missionary to Africa. But their voices, regardless of their degree of education and “correctness,” effectively tell the story of women everywhere, the struggle to balance selfhood, empowerment, love and connection, to meet the cruelty and pain of the world without being crushed by it.
The letters are undated, though one can deduce that they span roughly the first half of the twentieth century. This lack of temporal landmarks can be confusing at times, but outer events and the passage of time are not what is most important here. The inner evolution of human souls and hearts is what concerns us, and this always takes place in a realm beyond time, though linked to the daily, sensory events that Walker describes so vividly.
The Folio Society edition features drawings by Lela Harris, a self-taught British artist who is especially strong at portraiture. Her images of the characters, rendered in finely detailed charcoal shading with just a touch of the elusive purple, are revelatory and eloquent. A couple of non-portrait images seemed quite weak to me in comparison. The full-color binding and slipcase, though, are gorgeous and striking, evoking the panorama of space and time that the novel portrays.
I wanted to see more images of the people because I got such a strong sense of the mysterious web of human relationships from this novel. Even when connections were difficult, fraught with violence, infidelity, or betrayal, the characters suffered through the pain, still supporting each other on some level, sometimes coming to a new level of understanding and forgiveness after many years. What was important was not to destroy and obliterate the other, even one who had been the cause of terrible pain, but to become able to speak out, to claim one’s voice, to be heard, and to honor truth.
In that mission, The Color Purple was a landmark achievement. It gave voice to the voiceless in so many ways, to the poor, the overlooked, the exploited, to those considered deviant or dangerous or unworthy of attention. In the last forty years, such voices have been gathering and growing; as we come back to this beautiful, brave forerunner, we can be thankful that Alice Walker was such a good medium, opening a way for the speech of humanity. It’s time now for all of us to become better listeners, inspired by her example.
Alice Walker, The Color Purple, illustrated by Lela Harris (Folio Society, 2021; originally published 1982)
Review copy gratefully received from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are independently held by the reviewers.