Wednesday, August 14, 2013

He rested his tired head against the steel bars and wondered how was it possible for this man to know so much about him and yet be so bitterly against him

I bought Native Son awhile ago when it was on sale at the local bookstore. I can't remember exactly why it is I had this on my TBR list. I should really start making To Read bookshelves on Goodreads to keep track of this stuff. Anyway, I bought the book and then got intimidated by it so it now sat on my shelves. But then my shame at having a super white reading list finally pushed me to give this one a try. And it is intense.

Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a black man living in 1930s Chicago. It's the story of racism and poverty, of feeling hopeless and trapped because that's the only way you've ever been allowed to feel. Of terrible, brutal, things that lead to other terrible, brutal things. And then there are lines like this:
He lay again on the bed, his mind whirling, with images born of a multitude of impulses. He could run away; he could remain; he could even go down and confess what he had done. The mere thought that these avenues of action were open to him made him feel free, that his life was his, that he held his future in his hands.
And this
He would have gladly admitted his guilt if he had thought that in doing so he could have also given in the same breath a sense of the deep, choking hate that had been his life, a hate that he had not wanted to have, but could not help having.
Like I said above, the book is intense. The treatment Bigger receives is horrible. Bigger's treatment of others is horrible. Everyone is horrible all over. There are moments of lightness, of happiness, but they come because of a death, of a graphic murder. (Which I thought about putting behind a spoiler warning before I realized it's on the summary on the back of my copy so blame Harper if you're mad at that.) I needed to take a couple breaks for Eleanor & Park and People Who Eat Darkness because I needed something happy and something straightforward. This book is all shades of grey. And I wasn't expecting that.

I was expecting Bigger to be this innocent guy, caught up in a world that hates him. But he's not innocent. That would be too simple, too much of a melodrama. Of course this also means that I would find myself rooting for Bigger, hoping that he wouldn't have to face the consequences of his actions. Then I would get angry at myself for hoping this, which was usually around the time I needed to put the book down for awhile.

There's a scene near the end of the book that is basically Wright's essay about Bigger's life and all of the things in the world that kept him and other black men and women down, and why under the current system, in the current world there is no hope for justice. This essay took me out of the story a bit but it's so good and makes so many good points that I sort of don't care.

I'm glad I read this one. I don't see this being a book I re-read, but I'm glad I read it. I'm also glad I took breaks from it. I can't imagine what the reaction to this book was like when it was released in 1940.

Title quote from page 308

Wright, Richard. Native Son. Harper Perennial, 2005. Originally published 1940