Wednesday, January 18, 2012


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Go Tell It On The Mountain, James Baldwin, The Dial Press, 1953, 253 pp

I had always heard of this book but somehow never read it before. It is a powerful story about a young man raised in Harlem by his stepfather who is a preacher. The family are all members of a fundamentalist church and while racism plays a part in their lives, it is the religious angle that Baldwin emphasizes.

John is fourteen, in fact it is his birthday. Throughout the course of the day, when his birthday seems to have been forgotten by the family (not for the first time), we are taken through the early life of his parents in a series of flashbacks during which we learn how each came to be believers. Later in the day, the family goes to church and John feels the possibility of belief for the first time in his life.

The structure of the novel is a bit clunky but the scenes of religious conversion are possibly the best written of any I have ever read. Literature in the 1940s and 1950s is saturated with Christian novels. The Robe, by Lloyd C Douglas, (a bestseller in 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945) made a comeback in 1953 due to a movie version having been released that year. However, as far as I know there had not been a novel specifically about the Christian theme amongst Black people.

John's stepfather is a hypocrite, a child beater, a religious fanatic. This theme of the fundamentalist who harbors his own sins can be found in any race, any culture. Baldwin takes it apart with ruthless sensitivity, including its effect on the children of such a man.

John's mother is a complete believer in Jesus Christ, in the rewards of the afterlife, and in giving up all one's sorrows to God. She is fully confident that her son will benefit from being "saved."

Between the flashbacks we are taken step by step through John's night of spiritual journey, full of anguish and fear; hours he spends lost outside of his body. Only someone who has lived the experience could have written such a harrowing account. Baldwin did become a believer in his teens, but later rejected religion. In this novel however, he presents a cogent explanation of religious belief and conversion. Whether one is a believer or not, one cannot deny that he makes the connection between human life and religion plain and comprehensible.

At the end, as John walks home with his family, he sees clearly that nothing around him has changed, especially regarding his stepfather, but inside himself he feels changed. That pretty much says it all as far as I am concerned.

(Go Tell It On The Mountain is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

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