It’s hard to write well about miracles. They blindside you and because they’re so unexpected, it’s hard to frame lead ins for them. With other stories, the author can add foreshadowing and clues to point the reader in a general direction but miracles come without warning. Sometimes the miracle is such a surprise, that people refuse to believe it occurred. I have my share of skepticism but I do believe in miracles and I love when they happen. That’s probably why I love the book Their Eyes Were Watching God. As far as I’m concerned, the story in the book, the story of the book and the story of the woman who wrote it are all walking proofs of providence.
Let me start out with the writer, Zora Neale Hurston. She was one of eight children born to an African-American minister and his wife who lived in Alabama. She was born with talent, strong will and a brain but luck rarely favored children in poor, black families in the 1890’s. It did when her father moved his family to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first incorporated, all-black, towns in America. Zora’s self-confidence grew in a society where a resident’s destiny wasn’t limited by their skin tone. More good luck put her in the path of some gifted teachers. With this background, Zora used her own combination of hard work and resourcefulness to go to college and she studied anthropology at Howard University, Barnard College and Columbia University. Her studies made Zora realize that the Florida home she had known contained a rich, heretofore unstudied culture and she spent a large part of her life documenting this world before it disappeared. When she wasn’t writing writing books of folklore or studying other cultures, she created essays, plays, short stories and novels. Her second novel was Their Eyes Were Watching God.
TEWWG is, more than anything, the story of Janie, a middle-aged woman who learns to trust her own instincts after surviving three husbands, and the extremes of life. To hear Janie tell it, she has been “a delegate to the Big Association of Life” and her membership dues were paid through hard experience, often with the wrong man. Janie’s grandmother selected Logan Killicks to be Janie’s first husband, hoping he would give his young wife security. Instead, Janie found the emptiness of a loveless marriage. Jody Starks promised Janie excitement and change from the Killicks farm but Janie finds she is little more than a trophy to the ambitious Starks, who believes a wife is something to be exhibited, bullied and bossed. Only with Tea Cake, the traveling laborer who captures her heart, does Janie find the relationship of mutual affection and respect she craves. Both Teacake and Janie make mistakes but with this loving, imperfect man Janie is content to face demanding work, a murderous hurricane and even death itself because she has the right companion. Zora used her knowledge of Florida and the people she knew there to create a story built around a simple, profound idea: more than money or work or the approval of others, it takes Love to fill up a life.
Unfortunately, Their Eyes Were Watching God, didn’t get the recognition or praise it deserved when it was first published. It got mixed reviews from critics and few sales. All too soon, the novel was out of print and forgotten and it’s author seemed doomed to suffer the same fate. After a life of travel, love and accomplishment, Zora Neale Hurston died, penniless and alone in 1960 and was laid in an unmarked grave.
But remember, I promised you a miracle. The novelist Alice Walker discovered Their Eyes Were Watching God while she was still a student and she began to research Hurston’s life. A decade after Zora’s death, Walker placed a stone on the unmarked grave and published the article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”. The article focused a light on this nearly vanished author and her novel and people started hunting for old copies of the book. Three years later, the book was put back into print and now it is a part of college courses everywhere, recognized and taught not just as a great African-American tale or a great woman’s story but a great novel. That’s a bona-fide, sure-enough miracle.
Like I said, it’s not easy to describe a miracle but sometimes we recognize them when they happen. Miracles, like grace, are the good we don’t always deserve and certainly never expect. Yet, these surprise blessings give us hope for the future. They restore our faith in ourselves and the world and our belief in a benevolent providence. Like Their Eyes Were Watching God, miracles are gifts of love, the love that fulfills our lives.