Tuesday, April 5, 2011

#31 - "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers

When I began reading this novel, I have to admit I was a little worried it would be another Light in August.  That is to say I was worried I wouldn't like it; I was worried I would find it depressing.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter isn't at all what I was expecting, and a read I very much enjoyed.

Set in the South, in the late thirties, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is more a commentary on the poor, uneducated South as a whole, instead of focusing on race relations as most books set in this time and place do.  Now that isn't to say race relations aren't an important subject, it is to say that I don't necessarily enjoy reading about it due to it's (rightfully so) depressing nature.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Oprah's Book Club)The story centers around a man named John Singer, a man who isn't of any real importance and who is really only notable for being a deaf-mute.  He lives in a boarding house in a small, unnamed town, works for a local jeweler and goes about his business day in and day out.  Over time, Singer's life becomes entangled with four different towns people, four people who enjoy talking to him, though he can't hear them.  They enjoy spilling their guts to him as if he were a living, breathing diary, and as each of these people tell him more and more, the more they come to not only appreciate his 'listenning', they need it.  When Singer leaves town to visit a friend, all four find themselves lost and worried.  Worried he may never return and they'll be left without somebody to air their grievances to.

But book is really about Singer's four friends and their lives in the rural South.  They deal with family problems, race relations, addiction, poverty and even puberty.  Singer, more or less a stranger even to the reader, is merely their common bond.  I think it is the characters, most of whom I found so interesting, that made it possible for such difficult subjects to be handled so well.  While there were bad things happening throughout the town, the characters the book focuses on were not bad themselves.  They were merely people caught up in that period,  prisoners of their surroundings.

Another element of the book I found fascinating was the social commentary offered.  Despite being written in 1940, before World War II and before the civil rights movement in the United States, the book makes some fairly bold, yet accurate predictions and may even be the origin of a rather historic event in that country's history.

The characters often discuss the happenings in Europe with Hitler and the Nazis, a subject that no doubt dominated the headlines in 1939.  And while the Nazis' persecution of the Jews was well known at the time, their ultimate fate was not.  Yet the book speaks of an eventual slaughter of the Jews, long before it happened and long before it was ever public knowledge.  And that persecution is then compared to the happening in the US, and the persecution of blacks, not only in the South but throughout the nation.

"The Nazis rob the Jews of their legal, economic and cultural life. Here the Negro has always been deprived of these. And if wholesale and dramatic robbery of money and goods as not taken place here as in Germany, it is simply because the negro has never been allowed to accrue wealth in the first place."

I have always found it ironic how books and movies about the war always talk of the struggle to liberate the people of Europe against the racial oppression from the Third Reich, but never do I see that perception pointed the other direction, where a similar persecution was occurring in the United States at the same time. During World War II, the US was a country where black people were not allowed to go to the movies, eat in restaurants and in many states were not allowed to vote. Segregation was the law of the land, and it divided all public institutions including schools, the military and public transportation.  The 'land of the free' was anything but for the nation's minorities, who suffered levels of persecution that are hard to fathom today.  But really, it was only a little over 40 years ago that you would find two different water fountains at many gas stations.

When two of John Singer's friends discuss this very persecution, they each offer their plan to end racial segregation and oppression in the South.  I was, simply put, blown away, when Mady Copeland,  a black doctor, tells of his plan to "lead more than one thousand Negroes in this country on a march.  A March to Washington.  All of us together in one solid body."  I can only wonder if Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963 was born from this book, twenty-five years earlier.  Not since Snow Crash and its' prediction of Google Maps has there been are more accurate foretelling of the future in a book from The List.  And I'd argue this one was a little more significant.

You can read Time Magazine's original review from June 10, 1940 right here.

Next up is Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, the story of the fire-bombing of Dresden during the Second World War.  While I've heard of Vonnegut's novels, I've never read any of them, and don't really know what to expect.  I do know that Vonnegut was hired to tutor Rodney Dangerfield in "Back to School," but other than that, I'm at a loss.

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