Friday, July 17, 2009


I just finished Meridian by Alice Walker. It was written in 1976 and tells the story of Meridian Hill, a student at an Atlanta college. She attempt to find her place in the on-going revolution that is occurring, but is not willing "to kill for it". It was an interesting book. I saw a piece on-liine from the New York Times reviewing the book and it pretty much covers it for me, so here it is:

May 23, 1976 Meridian By MARGE PIERCY MERIDIAN By Alice Walker. In "Meridian," Alice Walker has written a fine, taut novel that accomplishes a remarkable amount. The issues she is concerned with are massive. Events are strung over 25 years, although most occur between the height of the civil rights movement and the present. However, her method of compression through selection of telling moments and her freedom from chronology create a lean book that finishes in 228 pages and goes down like clean water. Although this is only Alice Walker's second novel, it is her sixth book. She has published poetry, short stories and a study of Langston Hughes. She writes with a sharp critical sense as she deals with the issues of tactics and strategy in the civil rights movement, with the possibility of interracial love and communication, the vital and lethal strands in American and black experience, with violence and nonviolence, holiness and self-hatred. In spite of many sharply sketched minor characters (for instance, the young woman dying of a kidney ailment who says "Don't sit there. . . . You blocks my view of my husband"), there are only four important characters: Meridian's mother, Mrs. Hill, dour, narrowly religious, frightened and unloving; Lynne, a Jewish civil rights worker from the suburbs who marries and loses Truman the "Ethiopian prince"; Truman, a painter, who shifts and slides with the times; and Meridian herself, a black woman who cannot lie and for whom ideas are simply real and to be acted upon with her life. What Walker wants to say about history and choice she works out through a 10-year-long triangle; of Meridian, Truman and Lynne--their misadventures, their ability and inability to love or forgive each other, the dreadful believability of how they flay and feed and comfort by turns. Meridian has been passionately in love with Truman, who leaves her for Lynne, whom he later abandons along with their daughter Camara. By the time he wants Meridian, she no longer wants him because her life of total commitment to struggle in the black small towns of the South is meaningless to him, an increasingly commercial artist. Lynne cannot go back where she came from and she does not belong in the black community either. Meridian, the protagonist, is the most interesting, an attempt to make real in contemporary terms the notion of holiness and commitment. Is it possible to write a novel about the progress of a saint? Apparently, yes. With great skill and care to make Meridian believable at every stage of her development, Walker also shows us the cost. For every exemplary act of bravery for the black community (standing up to a tank so black children can see a peepshow) she pays an immediate price in her body. Asked by a group of temporary revolutionaries if she can kill for the revolution, she infuriates her friends because she cannot say an easy yes and spends a decade worrying the question. Walker has put "Meridian" together carefully, on every level. For instance, the lost dead black child is a motif running throughout. In ignorance Meridian got pregnant and had to leave high school. When she is offered a college scholarship for her work in civil rights, she gives her baby away to relatives and goes. She feels that giving up her child is a sin and a shame, and after aborting Truman's baby, she is sterilized. She is haunted by having failed to win her mother's love, by the great lack of mothering and nurture; and by her own failure as a mother. Her inability to forgive cripples her. At the same time she is aware that without that harsh choice, she would have accomplished nothing. Her life would have been wasted and she would have taken out her emptiness and frustration on hr baby, whom she could not love. That theme is played out in the story of a child of 13 who bears a baby and kills it, after she has bitten its cheek like an apple, and is put in prison, Lynne, whose daughter Camara is raped and murdered, loses her child and almost her reason. One of Meridian's acts on behalf of the black community in a small town in Alabama is to force the end of the flooding that menaces the children. The city has closed the swimming pools sooner than integrate them. In the hot weather, black children wade in the ditches behind their houses, where the city without warning flushes the reservoir of excess water. "It was Meridian who had led them to the mayor's office, bearing in her arms the bloated figure of a five-year-old boy who had been stuck in the sewer for two days before he was raked out with a grappling hook. . .To the people who followed Meridian it was as if she carried a large bouquet of long-stemmed roses. The body might have smelled just that sweet, from the serene, set expression on her face. They had followed her into a town meeting over which the white-haired, bespectacled mayor presided, and she had placed the child, whose body was beginning to decompose, beside his gavel." I do not find the ending successful. Walker consciously rejects death. Meridian's political commitment is not to end in martyrdom: there have been too many martyrs to her cause. Still, we need some other equivalent of death or marriage to round off a tale, and Walker has not found one here. We are told that Meridian has brought off a successful change from victim to fully responsible protagonist: that she no longer need punish herself physically, have fits, go blind because she acts for her people and herself, and that she believes she could kill if she must to prevent more martyrdom. But telling is not enough. She has ceased to be one sort of committed person and become another. Some act is needed to make real the change and it isn't there; but that's a minor failure in a tight, fascinating novel. Marge Piercy is a poet and novelist. Her latest poetry collection is "Living in the Open."

It is an interesting, complicated story. Although it was written about 33 years ago, it still seems quite relevant and in tume with these times.

1 comment:

Bybee said...

I never seem to be able to find this book. Thanks so much for reviewing something older and less well-known. I have a weakness for this type of buried treasure.