Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (audio)

go tell itI come away with the impression that this book had a large, sweeping scope. It is on the surface the story of John Grimes, and takes place in the present over the course of just a day or three, on and around his 14th birthday. His father Gabriel is a deacon in a black church in New York City in the 1950’s, and appears very pious, but beats his wife and children; as his sins add up from there, he comes clear as a hypocrite. The story begins and ends with John and focuses on his relationship with the church or with God; the first and last lines of the book are concerned with his eternal salvation. But in between, we ramble in space and time, and get to know Gabriel in his youth in the South; John’s mother Elizabeth in her youth in the South and in New York City; Gabriel’s sister Florence, who introduced him to Elizabeth; and a surprise character I’ll leave unnamed here. As such, although John is the focus that bookends all the action, this turns out really to be the story of a family and even of a shared experience. I was glad to have the background I gained by reading The Warmth of Other Suns, because like that work of nonfiction, Go Tell It on the Mountain is the story of black Americans moving north in the mid-20th century. It’s concerned with black society’s relationship with the church, and family patterns, and race relations. And it’s for these focuses that I call it “sweeping.”

John is a likeable character in that he feels like a real boy of that age, and my heart goes out to him for the challenges he faces: an overbearing and violent father with the significant authority of the black church in Harlem behind him is no small thing, and the question of his immortal soul and eternal salvation is weighty as well. Clearly I bypassed some of the weight of the religious question, not being able to sympathize with those parts, but I did appreciate the atmospheric nature of the church and the power of that institution in John’s society and in his family life.

Baldwin’s writing is undeniably lovely. I feel a little inadequate because I’m afraid I missed some of the depth of this story, mainly in the religious vein. But what I got, I appreciated, and part of that in this case meant just letting the language flow over me. The narration by Adam Lazarre-White is powerful, dynamic, and dramatic to the right extent; the phrasing feels accurately portrayed, and the cadence of the prayers is well executed and adds a lot to the feel of the story. Full marks for audio performance, and having such a fine narrator read such beautiful words was a grand experience.

Rating: 7 calls to the alter.

One Response

  1. […] minds, to answer Baldwin’s 1963 book. I read Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Go Tell It On the Mountain, and so have some idea of his voice & power, but I hadn’t read this title, so it’s […]

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