Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
I read an essay by James Baldwin years ago. Unfortunately I can’t remember which one it was, but it left me with a lingering sense of Baldwin’s mastery and eye for detail that was revived by my reading of his semi-autobiographical first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.
The book follows a family in Harlem through the course of one day in the 1930’s, but throughout that day a multi-generational saga of real depth and complexity is slowly drawn to the surface of its pages. The church is central to the family’s lives, community, stuggle, and identity, and it is through each character’s prayers that we learn their stories. Gabriel, the hypocritical, abusive father and preacher; Florence, Gabriel’s sister, the first to leave the South (and her ailing mother) behind, only to find more difficulty and disappointment in New York; Elizabeth, Gabriel’s second wife, who suffered the unjust loss of her first husband and with a baby on the way, and John: the young narrator, timid and lost. All are very real and dutifully captured. There is lots of pain in this book– rape, false arrests, untimely deaths. But it is beautifully written, and tells a larger story about U.S. racism, family, and faith that is both interesting and moving.
Basically, all the best you probably already know and/or expect from James Baldwin (and if you haven’t read him yet, you should really get on that!). The book is pretty short, and I recommend reading this one with as few interruptions as possible for maximum impact (not the way I read it, over a period of a few weeks. Still great, but I imagine the experience could have been even better).