There are some books that speak to specific periods in a reader’s life. ‘Oliver Twist’, for example, was read to me when I was a child. Although I still love the book, it is a strange experience to find myself growing further away in age from the young protagonists; I’m now considerably older than Nancy, and the result is that I read the book through very different eyes. Then there are the novels I first encountered as a teenager. When I first read ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ Holden Caulfield was an unbelievably sophisticated almost-adult (even if I couldn’t really understand what he was going on about). It’s so sad to see him as a confused boy trying to deal with an adolescence which no longer personally touches me. This long-winded introduction is my way of explaining the poignancy I found on finally reading ‘Go Tell it on the Mountains.’ I loved the novel. Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it on my list of top books of 2017. Still, I can’t help regretting that didn’t read the book as a school or college student. The coming of age story scorches off the pages and leaves me with the impression that it would have been even more personally affecting had I opened it earlier.
Of course the advantage of encountering ‘Go Tell it’ now, is that I have a more mature, critical reading style and so I can understand much of technical brilliance of the book that would probably have passed by my younger self (I have to think this because otherwise I’d just envy her too much!) Baldwin’s bildungsroman takes place on the day of his hero’s 14th birthday. John Grimes has been brought up in a rigidly religious family, it is accepted by ‘everyone … that [he] would be preacher when he grew up, just like his father‘. But John himself is on the edge of a spiritual awakening which sits unevenly alongside his entry into the adult world of 1930s Harlem.
During the course of his birthday, John will explore the depths of the secular ‘hell’ around him (wandering through Central Park and visiting a cinema) and the fearful heights inspired by his claustrophobically energetic church, ‘The Temple of the Fire Baptized.’ John is a clever, thoughtful child, but his attempts to form his own identity are almost crowded out of his own story as other members of his family hijack events. Not only does his brother gets beaten up while John was enjoy a day away from family responsibility, but the large middle section of the book is taken up with his aunt, father and mother’s own stories all of which relegate John to a mere walk-on role in his own bildungsroman. Thus, while John’s own experiences are confined to 1930s New York, the book itself travels further south and back in time, explaining but not condoning the forces of sexism and racism that have created the Grimes family as they stand on this specific day.
‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ is a book about trauma and anger being passed on the most vulnerable. It is about patterns of behaviour that can so easily be subverted away from pure intentions. It is also about love, hope and the potential for a better future. You can read it for its powerful explorations of race, gender and sexuality, or for its masterful evocation of setting and place. I’m sure I will be revisiting it in the future to follow these themes and ideas. For now though, I’m willing to give time for my first impressions to settle. I found it a incredibly moving coming-of-age story that provided an uplifting reading experience despite depicting terribly damaged families and individuals. It was a book that made me feel like an adult while reminding me of what it was to be a teenager. It’s certainly a book I’ll be shouting about for quite a while to come.