Book reviews

Christine’s suggestion for Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin to be the next book for a Review-Along (co-ordinated by FictionFan) was by far the most popular choice, but I must confess to having no idea who Baldwin was, what type of fiction he wrote or what this book might be about before I began reading.

The only thing that came to my mind was the Peter, Paul and Mary song from a record my parents owned when I was a child. While I could probably have hummed along with the tune and joined in here and there with the ‘Go tell it on the mountain, go tell it on the mountain, go tell it on the mountain and let my people go’ bit, I’d never thought about the song’s meaning. While researching the song for this review I learned that the lyrics of Peter, Paul and Mary’s version was rewritten during the 1960s to promote the civil rights struggle and that the original song had been a Christmas carol celebrating the birth of Jesus. The lyrics which would have been sung when Baldwin wrote this book in the early 1950s related to the belief that Jesus was a savior who would work miracles to set all men free.

I’m not going to lie, I found this story to be really, really hard going.

The characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain were just one generation away from their family having been slaves. One generation. In our life time.

The story was set over a single day, beginning and ending with John Grimes on his fourteenth birthday and following various other characters from John’s family throughout the middle.

The first few pages started off cheerfully as John recollected his earliest memories, chiefly of Sunday mornings while he and his family readied themselves to attend their church, named the ‘Temple of the Fire Baptized.’ John’s father Gabriel was a preacher and John was expected to become a preacher when he grew up.

After John finished his chores the morning of his birthday he went to the movies with the money his mother Elizabeth had given him for a present, but when he returned home John found his frightened family gathered around his younger brother Roy, who was bleeding after having been stabbed in a knife fight.

Gabriel, angry and frightened that Roy might have been killed, blamed Elizabeth for failing to control their son and hit her, then belted Roy who had intervened to protect his mother. Eventually Gabriel’s sister Florence managed to catch the belt to stop him from beating Roy further.

Florence’s chapter described her and Gabriel’s childhood with their mother, who had been a slave. Their mother let Gabriel get away with terrible behaviour while Florence had been expected to put her brother’s needs before her own, but when their mother was dying, it was Florence who left the family home to go to New York where she married Frank, a charming wastrel who eventually left her after he got sick of her trying to change him.

Sometimes I read aloud to myself to try to catch the feel of a story and the voices of the characters. I was reading this story aloud when I was pulled up short by Florence calling Frank the ‘N’ word. The author was using the language of the time and thereafter the word was used frequently by the black characters during their conversations with each other, but I found I couldn’t read the story aloud any more.

‘And what you want me to do, Florence? You want me to turn white?’

The next chapter followed Gabriel. He had been exposed earlier as a cruel and domineering man but it wasn’t until this section that the religious elements of the story really came out.

Gabriel considered himself as having been saved by religion as a young man. He took pride in having become a preacher, but he was also a religious fanatic and a hypocrite. Gabriel had married his first wife Deborah after she encouraged him to preach, even though she was ten years older than him, physically ugly and had been ‘ruined’ by having been raped by a group of white men when she was little more than a child.

While married to Deborah, Gabriel had an affair with a young woman who became pregnant and gave birth to their son, also named Royal. She received no help or acknowledgement from Gabriel, who was by this time too concerned about his reputation as a preacher to do the right thing by her. The first Royal, who had inherited Gabriel’s wildness, later died in a knife fight.

After Deborah died Gabriel married Elizabeth and took on the raising of her son, John, in what he saw as an act of redemption.

The next section followed Elizabeth. She had fallen in love with a young man, Richard and followed him to New York where she fell pregnant with John. Before Elizabeth could tell Richard she was pregnant he was wrongly arrested for a crime he didn’t do, then brutally beaten by the police. After being freed, Richard killed himself.

The last section of the story returned to John. Despite having been brought up in the church he had never ‘found’ God, but during that night’s evening service he finally experienced the religious mania and visions which the other characters regularly experienced. When John ‘came to’ he learned he had been at the church all night with his family and the other members of the congregation praying around him.

The religious fanaticism of this story was at times overwhelming. The characters truly believed in God, the teachings of their church and that after their death they would earn their reward. If this is what happens after we die, I hope Deborah and Elizabeth are in heaven enjoying themselves since their lives on earth through no fault of their own were miserable and tragic.

I hated the blind belief these characters had in their religion, their only crutch to survive their unhappy, poverty-stricken, limited lives. I wanted them to have their reward and opportunities now, for them not to be treated by society as less than they were, for them not to be frightened every day of their life of the harm that could come to them because they were black.

I wanted them not to be black.

I wanted the characters to live their lives as if colour didn’t exist or not to matter, which proved impossible for this first generation of people who fled to New York from the South to be ‘free’ after slavery was abolished. Compared to what their lives had been as slaves they were free, but the characters were treated by white people as if they were a menace or a criminal because they were black. I nearly cried when one of the main characters described being too afraid to visit the library. The library, which is for everyone, black, white or brindle, men, women and children, old and young, rich or poor. There were worse deprivations for the characters, but I suppose it was the library which resonated most with me.

There weren’t any white characters in this story other than in passing, such as the white man who wrongly accused Richard of a crime he didn’t commit, or the white police who beat him, or the pack of white men who raped Deborah, or the white folks who lived in ‘the house of pride.’ I can’t argue with any of this, as there wasn’t a single white person in this story who was shown to have any goodness in them.

Along with everything else I hated about this story, I also hated Gabriel. If Gabriel looked into my eyes he would see the same expression as he saw when he looked into the eyes of his first wife, Deborah, of Esther, the girl he got pregnant then abandoned, of his two sons both named Roy, of John, of his sister Florence and of his wife, Elizabeth.

Since finishing reading I’ve wondered how the rest of John’s life would have played out and all I could see ahead for him were sad and difficult times. The reader realises that John was gay, although he was so young that he hadn’t quite realised what this meant. The theme of sin was important to this story but I was glad that John wasn’t exposed as gay to his fellow characters and punished or humiliated as a result. If there is a sequel to Go Tell It on the Mountain I don’t think I could bear to read it.

Baldwin’s writing is excellent. The contrast between the character’s uneducated, slang-y dialect contrasted with the non-conversational parts of the story, which were written using words and word combinations the characters couldn’t possibly have known or used was extraordinary.

Each chapter of the book began with the lyrics from a gospel song. It didn’t occur to me to search for or listen to any of the music while I was reading but I have listened to some of these songs since. I wish I had listened to them while reading as I think this would have added even more depth to the story (not that it needed this), although the contrast between the hope and the joy expressed in the music and lyrics of these songs with the characters’ actual lives is stark.

Lyrics from the following song, I Had to Stoop Down and Buckle Up My Shoes headed John’s last chapter, where he found God.

I expect I’ll read more books by James Baldwin in future but not anytime soon, mostly because I need to build up my emotional reserves first. I felt so miserable that I had to force myself to keep picking this book up, particularly during Gabriel’s section where this hypocritical and hateful man’s religion felt as if it were being shoved down my throat. Regardless, I’m glad I read Go Tell It on the Mountain. It is an enormously powerful book and I feel as if I have gained empathy as a result of reading it.

I will add links to other participants in the Review-Along of Go Tell It on the Mountain below as I come across them.

Kelly’s Thoughts and Ramblings:

FictionFan’s Book Reviews:

Madame Bibi Lophile’s Reviews:

Comments on: "Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin" (17)

  1. Rose, what an incredibly powerful review. I did read this years ago, it’s very difficult reading and you’ve done it justice. Your point about the characters blind belief in their faith is a very good one and makes me realise what a privilege it is to be so off hand about religion. Easy to scorn something when you don’t have any need for it.

    • Thank you, Jane. This was a hard book to read and difficult to review.
      Your comment about religion being scorned by those who don’t ‘need’ it reminded me of a line in the book about God not listening to people who only prayed when they were desperate for help. There was a lot about this book that made me realise how hard some people’s lives were (and are).

  2. Great review! You did much better than me, as you will discover when I post my review! I’m glad you appreciated it more than I did even if you didn’t exactly enjoy it. It clearly was a terrible time for the descendants of slavery – it always stuns me to remember just how recently slavery was abolished in the US, and I think that as a result their problems with race are still far worse than in most of our countries, although I’m not suggesting we don’t have problems too. I just feel it’s a pity that these religions deliberately set out to preach that people should be miserable now in the hope of paradise later. Anyway, I fear I’ll never read Baldwin again, and I admire you for being willing to… 😀

    • There was nothing to enjoy in this book really, except for the beautiful writing.
      I was truly shocked when I realised just how recently slavery was abolished. As you say, no wonder the race problems are still so terrible. Hopefully it won’t be generations away before things improve enormously, but who knows.
      The religious mania was hard for me to accept, but obviously it was a real thing for people like the characters in this book. if there is any justice, they’ll be in heaven now, although as you commented to someone, because they’ve lived good lives rather than having prayed hypocritically.

      • I remember Harper Lee pointing out in Go Set a Watchman that there were people still alive whose fathers had fought in the Civil War, so for them it wasn’t history – in the same way as WW2 isn’t really history for me because both my parents were in it. Sadly, that kind of religious extremism still seems to be pretty commonplace in America – worrying!

  3. Reading your thoughtful review I’ve realised it was probably good that I read this so quickly, I think that and Baldwin’s beautiful style helped me through the tough subject matter. That’s a really good idea about listening to the songs at the same time, I wish I’d done that too. I’m not religious at all and it would have definitely enhanced my reading.

    • I was really surprised when you said you’d read this book so quickly, it took me ages. Maybe because I wasn’t enjoying it so kept finding other things to do instead of reading.
      I’m slightly tempted to hold onto the book and to try reading it again in future while listening to the songs, but… maybe not.

  4. I intended to join in with this, Rose, but gave up when I knew that I couldn’t read this one properly. It’s not the right time for me. So far I’ve read yours and FF’s reviews and Mme B’s. It seems to be very much a marmite book. (Love it or hate it – is there an Aussie expression for that?) Despite your misgivings, and FF’s, I still hope that I’ll give this another go eventually. Clearly it was a seminal read for you albeit a shocking and painful one. I suspect it will be the same for me. Great review!

    • Wait until you have the time and the concentration and are feeling strong emotionally, Sandra, because the book is good and deserves a proper read, but it will churn up your emotions.
      While I disliked so much about these character’s lives, I suspect I’ll be thinking about them for a while to come.
      It’s Vegemite for us!

  5. This sounds really powerful but it’s easy to see what you mean by it being such a hard read. It really drives home how close we still are to slavery.

    • I was genuinely shocked when I realised just how close we are to slavery still. The way the characters were treated was also shocking to me because I realised that so much of what they were experiencing is still happening now.

  6. I’d forgotten Peter, Paul, and Mary did a version of the song. I assumed the title was taken from the old “Negro Spiritual”. I can’t say I really enjoyed the book, though I felt the middle portion provided an eye-opening account of life for Blacks in the early 20th century.

    • The way the characters lived was eye-opening for me too. There are so many things we take for granted and yet all these are is due to the luck of our birth, where we live, what colour we are, how much money or influence our parents have.

  7. piningforthewest said:

    That is such a great review, thank you. The misery and poverty which leads to people putting their hope in a religion really depresses me, especially as it is still ongoing all over the world with various religions. It’s all such a con and that to me is the ultimate in abuse, when all people really need is for life to be fairer.

    • I find it very hard to look past religion as being a business that takes from those who are desperate these days, although I don’t remember anyone giving their money to the church in the novel.

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