Sarah's Reviews > Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
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Jul 12, 09

Read in July, 2009

Langston Hughes described this book and its author as using words like the sea uses waves. There is no other way to describe it. The prose, the language, the stories that unfold in this book wash upon the shores of the mind sometimes volatile, sometimes languishing, but always ceaseless.
The novel starts with the narrative of John who awakes on his fourteenth birthday in a panic. An epiphany awakens him before anyone else and in his panic he realizes that he stands at a fork in the road of his life. He can continue to serve the church of his father whom he hates or turn his back which he fears to do.
He returns to sleep only to wake up and find that everyone has forgotten it is is birthday and he must do chores just like every other day. He envies and dislikes his younger brother Roy who is brave enough to follow his own path despite their father's physical abuse.
At the finish of his chores that he compares to Sisyphus's neverending punishment in Tartarus, his mother, Elizabeth, gives him birthday money and a silent moment between them fills him with unwept tears of joy and love for his mother.
He decides to spend some of it on a movie and is scared the netire time of being caught at the forbidden cinema theater. Returning home, he finds his younger brother, Roy, was stabbed by a knife, though not fatally he soon sees. But, in his father's eyes he sees that his father wishes it were John on the floor stabbed rather than his favorite son, Roy. His father then begins to blame his Elizabeth for not keeping an eye on "his son," but his sister, Aunt Florence, doesn't hesitate to remind him that no one can keep Roy cooped up inside forever and that he, Gabriel, was pretty wild in his younger days as well. Gabriel begins to blame "white folk" for hurting his beloved son and strikes Elizabeth in anger. Roy sits up between the two cursing at his father saying, "You black bastard! You can't hit my mother! She's my mother!"
Disbelievingly, Gabriel turns and begins to beat Roy for cursing at him which his sister Florence stops by fearlessly holding back his belt that he had used.
Later, he goes to church to clean and get it ready for a meeting and an older boy he admires and envies named Elisha helps him. The two get in a goodnatured scrap and John makes a point of not conceding quickly like he normally would. He would make Elisha's victory costly. Soon two of "the saints" arrive and Elisha begins playing on the piano while the two older saints talk and sing random hymns.
It then leaves John's narrative as his Aunt Florence, his mother, Elizabeth, and his father, Gabriel all enter the church and begin to pray.
Florence narrates the story of what she views as the distinguishing moments of her life. Born the duaghter of a former slave, she was brought up to cater to her younger brother who being the only man was spoiled and given everything first. Gabriel turned out wild, chasing women, chasing booze, and everything his mother urged him to repent while Florence and her mother worked themselves to the bone to provide for his wellbeing.
As her mother approached death, Florence realized she had to go or forever be her brother's keeper and she was too headstrong and bitter to allow that. So on her mother's deathbed she left with a silent understanding, however begrudgingly, from her elderly mother. Gabriel tried to stop her not from any love for his sister, but because without her he'd have to take on some responisibility for his mother. He's have to grow up a little. So, Florence left and married Frank who she bossed around and nagged endlessly for years until he'd had enough and walked out after 10 yrs. She didn't realize how much she needed and loved him until he left her and by then he had died in the war. Embittered towards all men and especially her brother, however reformed he claimed to be now, she remained alone and was now faced with her impending death from an unknown disease, faintly described as kidney or liver-related.
Gabriel's prayer starts at the moment he was saved. He describes the hallucinatory dream he had that saved him from a life of wickedness and led him to become an enigmatic preacher. He marries his older sister's friend Deborah who was brutally raped as a young girl by white men because he believes that God sent her to him so that she may bear his Royal lineage that will be favorites with the Lord. But, she cannot bear children and he begins to grow disgusted with his wife. The narrative then jumps to the day he met Esther a maid in the house he works at who is always followed by lots of men and sin. He doesn't really try to resist, but tries to stay away from her unsuccessfully until he "falls" and cheats on his wife with Esther for all of nine days. Esther gets pregnant and scared she goes to him and he washes his hands of her. He calls her a sinner and asks her what "she's" going to do instead of what "we're" going to do. Not allowing him to beat her down, she demands some money so she can get away from him and have her baby that she names Royal, mocking Gabriel's dream of a holy lineage of sons to carry on the Gospel. He recalls Esther's death in the north and watching from afar, without ever coming forward, his son growing up just as wild as he was. Royal dies from being stabbed (which alludes to his wildeyed panic at Roy's being stabbed in John's narrative) and he views it as not his fault though Deborah reveals that she knew about Esther and Royal and that if he had just told her she would have gladly taken in Royal and raised him as their own no matter what people said about them. Deborah dies and he alludes to his meeting "Elizabeth and her son" as his salvation.
Then comes Elizabeth's prayer. She was born to a sickly mother and a father that loved her adoringly and she loved in return. After her mother died, a strict Aunt from Maryland took her from her father because he ran a whorehouse. She despised her Aunt for taking her from her father and although she knew her father could have come taken her back if he really loved her, she never blamed him that he didn't. One day she meets Richard and they begin to secretly date. She describes an inherent insolence and embitterment in his character, but for her he smiles and amazes her with his intelligence and love. He moves to NYC and wants her to come with him so she convinces her Aunt to let her move in with a distant relative in NYC where there are better advantages for her there than in the south. Bitterly, she reflects that there are better opportunities, but the north takes as much as it gives. The distant respectable relative turns out to run a psychic parlor of which she is the clairvoyent who doesn't care or see a damn thing Elizabeth does. Richard knocks her up, but she doesn't tell him quite yet believing, at the time, it would be a burden she didn't want him to bear. Now she believes he'd still be alive and with her if she had told him. After walking her home, Richard was waiting for the subway when a group of black men fighting each other stumbled into him. Police saw the group and hauled them all in on robbery. Richard is beaten and brutalized because all "of them look alike." Though eventually he proves that he wasn't there and wasn't a part of it. Free he cries in his bed holding Elizabeth close. She remembers almost telling him then, but holding back to not burden him. The next morning, she finds out he cuts his wrists. Scared and alone, she refuses to tell her Aunt or contact her father about her trouble, but moves out and gets a night job so that she can take care of Johnny during the day and earn money at night. There she meets Florence who she confides in about Johnny though to everyone else she tells she is a widow. Florence introduces her to Gabriel who has just moved to NYC and apparently told him all about Johnny and Elizabeth. Soon, he tells Elizabeth that he believes the Lord sent her and her boy to him and that he will love litle Johnny like his own son and "walk in the light of the Lord." After marrying Gabriel, much to Florence's consternation she soon realized that he kept his promise to the letter, but not the spirit. He did not truly love John, not like his real son Roy despite the fact that John was an obedient, good boy whereas Roy was hell-bent. She wants to protect her son, but doesn't know how.
John's narrative again picks up with the end of his mother's when she hears him yell and believes he must be "speaking with God." He narrates the dreamlike vision he has in which he is saved twisting and hollering on the floor of the church in front of everyone. It takes all night, but he comes to a different being. Still frightened of what he felt to be his damnation, he talks with Elisha as one talks with a close older brother asking him to pray for him to keep him saved. Gabriel disbelieves John's salvation, but refuses to show it in front of the saints. Elizabeth cries silently as the saints walk with her towards home at dawn. Florence and Gabriel walk in a group to themselves and Florence lets him know that Deborah told her about Royal and Esther and reveals that she will spend her last breath telling everyone that he sinned most cruelly destroying Esther, Royal, and Deborah with his self-righteousness and hypocritical attitude. He still believes he is above reproach and that there's no point to it, but Florence tells him that she's going to tell Elizabeth and let her no there's more than one sinner living in her home. But, Florence will not let Gabriel destroy more lives with his wild nature.
The novel ends with John making Elisha promise to pray for him and him smiling into his father's frowning face as he rushed in after his mother.
The way the story unfolds, the way James Baldwin hit the reader with wave after wave of layer after layer to a group of people so rich and real is wonderful. The changing morals of society, relationship with God, the definition of sin and salvation, it all blends seamlessly in the multiple narratives. It is a powerful book, rich with stories and rife with fallen saints. Will John remain saved? Will Florence tell Elizabeth? Will Elizabeth grow stronger than Gabriel's beatings because of it? Will Roy tame? All these and more are left in the reader's mind, unanswered and can only be conjectured at. Wonderful, wonderful book.
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07/11/2009 page 151
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