Book #19: Go Tell It On The Mountain
It’s not that the story is bad–it’s usually powerful, in fact–after all, an author who can captivate a reader with his writing usually has enough wherewithal to create a unique plot.
But, sometimes, when I close the book, when I read that last word, I stop and reflect more about the author as a writer than as a storyteller. And that was definitely the case with Go Tell It On The Mountain.
From a writing standpoint, James Baldwin is one of the best authors I’ve read. I gave you an excerpt of his writing in yesterday’s post, and that’s just a small sample. Go Tell It On The Mountain is beautifully told.
Here’s another passage that describes 14-year-old John’s spiritual tension as he struggles with believing in God and his hatred toward his father. It’s a theme that carries throughout the book.
“He lived for the day when his father would be dying and he, John, would curse him on his death-bed. And this was why, though he had been born in the faith and had been surrounded all his life by the saints and by their prayers and their rejoicing, and though the tabernacle in which they worshipped was more completely real to him than the several precarious homes in which he and his family had lived, John’s heart was hardened against the Lord. His father was God’s minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.”
But what of the story?
Set in 1930s Harlem, Go Tell It On The Mountain centers on this 14-year-old boy, John, who is conflicted between a faith he doesn’t believe in but still feels drawn to. His father, Gabriel–who is also a deacon and former minister at their church, “Temple of the Fire Baptized”–abuses John and his mother, Elizabeth. He’s a mean, hellfire and brimstone kind of guy, who claims to be “God’s annointed.”
While I would say John is the central character, Baldwin also tells the story of three other characters: Gabriel, Aunt Florence, and John’s mother, Elizabeth. The book is broken up into sections that focus on on each character, shifting the story between their past and their present.
Other than the writing, two other things stand out to me about this novel.
First, the dialogue. I’m no expert on African-American dialect in 1930s Harlem, but Baldwin seems to capture it well. Consider this exchange between Aunt Florence and her brother, Gabriel. Aunt Florence, my favorite character in the novel, tells it like it is. In this situation, she’s confronting her brother about his past misdeeds.
“Look like,” she said, “you think the Lord’s a man like you; you think you can fool Him like you fool men, and you think He forgets, like men. But God don’t forget nothing, Gabriel–if your name’s down there in the Book, like you say, it’s got all what you done right down there with it. And you going to answer for it, too.”
Out of context, you might not appreciate that dialogue. But it’s a strong characteristic of this book. It’s another novel where I can almost hear these characters speak as I read. Baldwin really nailed the dialogue.
Second, Baldwin draws heavily from biblical stories throughout Go Tell It On The Mountain. It’s easy to see how he was once a teenage pastor.
I noticed allegories and illusions to biblical stories in many places. For instance, Gabriel is an Abraham-like figure–his first wife was barren, and unwilling to wait on God to provide, Gabriel sought out the company of a prostitute and fathered an illegitimate child with her.
The main character, John, and his brother, Roy, are similar to Jacob and Esau in Scripture. Esau (read: Roy), the first-born, the legitimate child, who is a hellian yet remains the apple of his father’s eye.
And John, the good son, the one that, though he’s illegitimate (unlike Jacob in the Bible) is more capable of making Gabriel proud. But Gabriel mirrors the blindness of Isaac in Scripture by overlooking the flaws of his elder son.
James Baldwin is quoted as saying, “Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.” I’m not sure who Baldwin was talking about there, as I haven’t been able to source the quote, but it perfectly describes his characterization of Gabriel in Go Tell It On The Mountain.
Your dislike for Gabriel–his arrogance, his brutality, his hypocrisy–will carry you through this novel. Though the story somewhat revolves around John, it’s Gabriel who carries this story. You’ll feel his presence on the characters throughout the book.
Whether you’re a Christian or not, spiritual or not, this is a strong book. You’ll read a moving story about a young boy’s growth into maturity, despite the presence of an overbearing and abusive father.
More than all of that, though, you’ll hopefully appreciate James Baldwin’s talent as a writer. For me, that alone makes this book worth the read.
The Opening Line: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”
The Meaning: The story dives into the gray areas of faith. Men who profess absolute truth but live in absolute hypocrisy. In that murkiness, though, Baldwin shows redemption is still possible.
Highlights: James Baldwin has a cadence, a rythym with his writing that is simply beautiful. Amazing that Go Tell It On The Mountain was Baldwin’s first novel. Also, I think Baldwin does a excellent job of leaving the discussion open about Christianity and the church. Considering his upbringing, I think it could have been easy for him to come down hard one way or the other.
Lowlights: A lot of the story occurs in the past, explaining the history of some of the characters. I would’ve enjoyed seeing a little more in the present, and a little more focus on the main character, John.
Memorable Line: “John and his father stared at each other, struck dumb and still and with something come to life between them–while the Holy Ghost spoke. Gabriel had never seen such a look on John’s face before; Satan, at that moment, stared out of John’s eyes while the Spirit spoke.”
Final Thoughts: James Baldwin could make an infomercial poetic. The guy could flat write, and that’s what made Go Tell It On The Mountain memorable for me. I would say that anyone who is a writer or claims to be a writer should read this book. It’s beautifully told.