What a phenomenal book this was. Baldwin’s storytelling abilities are remarkable. Not only is Go Tell it on the Mountain a great tale, but we actually get into the characters’ souls and understand them as if we’ve become them. The reader has the privilege of being on the inside, so to speak, so fully understands the misperceptions that surround the various characters.
Set primarily in 1930’s Harlem, we meet the Grimes family and come to know them quite intimately. With the patriarch a minister, there are biblical references throughout. Baldwin addresses numerous issues; racism, police brutality, sexual promiscuity, infidelity, rape, death as well as conflicts involving sexual identity, religious beliefs and family.
We meet John Grimes as he is just turning 14. He is living with his parents and three younger siblings and begins seeing his family in a new light posing questions in his mind he’ll never put to his lips.
Deacon Gabriel is the father and is first presented through John’s eyes as a brutal and cold man. The reader rides a see saw with this character and feels both sympathy and antipathy toward him.
The sister of Gabriel, Aunt Florence, at first appears cold like her brother, but we get to see her fiery and independent side. Flashbacks to her life as a young girl living with her brother reveal how she came to resent Gabriel and failed to live the life she believed she was meant to.
Elizabeth Grimes is the mother and like the other characters is not what she at first appears to be. She seems to be carrying the world’s burdens upon her shoulders when we first meet her and we come to realize that in a sense, she is. Her seeming indifference and uncaring are the mask she wears to numb the pain of her early years fraught with tragedy.
What worked so well was the feeling that the reader knew more than the characters. Baldwin presented real people with real baggage and rather than tidy it all up with tear filled confessions, he let the characters’ secrets be known only to the reader and had them carry on their frustrated lives without making revelations to one another.
What didn’t work for me was the last section of the book, reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, and seemed somewhat interminable. At this point, there was an expectation of closure, but there was none.
I’d love a little chat with Mr. Baldwin. Perhaps I could pick his brain and get an inkling as to how he so deftly developed his characters. I’d also love to hear about his life in France.
My rating for Go Tell it on the Mountain is a 9 out of 10.
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