Book review: Go Tell It on The Mountain

The value of a novel is in revealing truths that move the reader, leaving the reader changed. Go Tell It on the Mountain does just that.

As I closed the book upon finishing it, an audible expression of astonishment escaped my lips. Go Tell It On The Mountain is a surreptitiously powerful book. The story seems so simple—a fourteen-year-old boy raised in a house led by stepfather who is a Pentecostal preacher.

Baldwin draws the reader deeper into the lives of major characters one by one. Their sins, their pain, and the suffering of their lives are laid bare for the reader to see. No judgement about them is clear-cut.

He plays with the role of sin and religion in the lives of African Americans. Sin envelops and morphs, rationalized away and looking different from various perspectives and through the eyes of various people. Religion both uplifts and destroys. Religion is a truth that brings salvation and partial healing. And a hypocrisy that brings damnation and harm. Salvation is never final and sin exists everywhere.

Racism of the early 20th century dances through the storyline. The poverty, the lack of opportunity, the despair screams of racism. Hatred of and distrust of white people pervades the life of some characters. Indifference of white people is the reality of other characters. White people appear on the fringes of the story as absent employers, violence to black lives, and the very present threat of police and the criminal justice system.

The novel shows lives cut short or full of pain. Lots of lost opportunities, snippets of love but mostly punctuated with hatred. Family and community are not idealized. The reality of relationships is on full display with its raw harshness.

My heart ached for each character in turn. They all exist in hell and live with a past that they wish to return to or long to forget. Life is a long series of pain and loss. Ironically in a such a family where religion plays such a central role in their lives, God seems absent.

Go Tell It on The Mountain is James Baldwin’s first major work, a semi-autobiographical novel. It is generally considered an American classic, and I can see why. His storytelling is superb and he reaches into the soul of the characters he describes. He touches on important themes, bringing them briefly front and center to the reader’s attention without preaching or belaboring his points. He relates truths in American society that leaves one pondering the items weighing down one’s soul from the telling of his story. The value of a novel is in revealing truths that move the reader, leaving them changed. Go Tell It on the Mountain does just that.

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