Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Published: 1937

Author: Zora Neale Hurston

Challenge status: #23 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #23 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: In 1997, the book was challenged in Brentsville, VA for language & sexual explicitness. More info here.

First line: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

Synopsis:

This is a beautifully composed book that is both significant “literature” and a satisfying story. Set in the South in the early 20th century, Hurston creates a distinct world (through development of a rich character set, detailed setting, and effective use of language) and weaves into it an unconventional, but still modernly crafted, coming-of-age story.

The main character, Janie, is a beautiful young woman who has many choices made for her early in life, and due to her good looks has both higher and more limited prospects than other people in her community. Janie was raised by her grandmother, who’s primary aspiration for Janie is to simply marry “well”, though Janie is not really let in on the plan till she’s almost at marrying age. Janie’s parentage is only vaguely described, but her absent father is the explanation for her (oft described) light skin.

Only after the death of her second husband does Janie really come into her own, figuring out who she is on her own terms rather than being defined by those around her. Still, even as a newly minted adult/individual, Janie finds herself again on love’s doorstop (with a much younger man – scandal) and needs to figure out yet again how to navigate a relationship. Which sacrifices are for the good of the relationship? Which sacrifices are a denial of self? There are no easy answers and the book is rooted in realism rather than idealism.

Hurston (1891-1960) was a brilliant talent – a Barnard graduate who applied her talents to writing, folklore, and anthropology. At age 26 she had not yet finished high school (having left home at 13 after her father remarried) so she simply told the school district in Baltimore she’d been born 10 years later – so that she could qualify for free public education. (And then she went on to Barnard – awesome). This book was written over the course of 7 weeks while she was on a research trip in Haiti.