Zora Neale Hurston is considered one of the first important African American female authors, and THE dominant African American female author in the era after the Korean war. She was born in 1891 to a carpenter/Baptist preacher and a schoolteacher.
The book was first published in 1937, but more people have read it since 1975 than read it all the years from publication until then.
A brief synopsis: Set in the 1930s, the main character, Janie is a fair-skinned, straight-haired (important to teh story) beautiful African American girl whose parents are out of the picture. It is implied that her father was white. She was raised by her grandma who was a former slave. Sour and angry, Nanna says she wants "more for her Janie" than she ever had, but basically that means anything better than slavery, so as fast as she can, she arranges a marriage for Janie at the age of 16 to a much older widower. This is the first of three marriages (the first one is never formally ended; she gets married to #2 while still married to #1) of varying degrees of happiness. The first man isn't terrible, she's just very young and is bored; she is spirited away by #2 after only 2 months of marriage. #2 (Jody) is a flashy and charismatic social climber, and apparently sees Janie's beauty as a way to hasten his prospects. They remain married for 20 years or so. It is a pitiful, loveless marriage. She runs the general store that they own, while he is the bigshot mayor of a respectable, but small town. He demands that she hide her beauty, as well as her voice. He dies old and bitter, hating her.
Soon after Jody's death, she meets Tea Cake. There is about a 20 year age difference -- SHE is 40 and Tea Cake about 20. They fall madly in love and are married very quickly. The few years they have together are exciting and full, full of hard work, friends and hardship. He isn't perfect, but he does recognize her intelligence, voice and strength. She is the one with the money in the relationship, due to the estate that is left after Jody's death. She is seen as beautiful by all around her, yet she is not on the pedastal taht Jody placed her on, which eventually was the undoing of their marriage. Tea Cake contracts rabies from a mad dog who bites him, and dies tragically from a gunshot wound by Janie's hand, when he is mad with the rabies and tries to kill her in his delusional state. It is a horrible end to a beautiful life.
Skin color (beyond "black and white" into shades of brown) and social status, beauty, community, independence, interdependence, lonliness, envy, bitterness and hatred are some of the main themes represented in the novel. Janie is so lonely for much of her life. Because Jody hides her beauty and she loses her "voice" due to his constant verbal abuse, she is to herself; the townspeople see her as aloof and stuck up, which she isn't at all. Light skinned blacks like her because of her beautiful coffee-colored skin and straight hair, and dark-skinned blacks think that she believes she is better than they; this is not the case. She's stuck in the middle.
While a very compelling book, it was quite hard to read at first due to the speech patterns duplicated phonetically. Here's an example:
Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn't know Ah wuzn't white till Ah
was round six years old.
Once that challenge was surmounted, the story came to the forefront rather than the writing...it was distracting at first.
The Janie character is of the tragic genre, but is strong and her own woman. Alice Walker says, "There is no book more important to me than this one."