Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a thinly disguised biography of Zora Neale Hurston’s parents, whose names she barely veils in the novel. The story focuses on John Pearson’s rise from a poor, illiterate Alabama sharecropper to the powerful, well-to-do moderator of the Florida Baptist Convention, to his subsequent fall from power and grace, to his painful resurrection and death.
The narrative opens on a sharecropping farm near the Songahatchee River in Alabama several years after the emancipation. Amy and Ned Crittenden and their three sons, including John, whom Amy had before marrying Ned, live the typically dismal life of the southern black sharecropper—poor, perpetually in debt, ill-fed, ill-clothed, and generally hopeless. These difficulties, coupled with Ned’s heavy drinking and his near hatred of his wife’s mulatto son, make their domestic life a tragedy from which the sixteen-year-old John flees after he knocks Ned down for beating Amy.
John finds employment and an entirely new way of life on the plantation of Judge Alf Pearson, who, readers soon realize, is John’s father. John is given considerable responsibility while in the judge’s employ; he is also given the opportunity to go to school. It is also while at Judge Pearson’s that John becomes involved in several of his many affairs with women.
It is the fiery, petite Lucy Potts whom John vows to marry, which he does eventually, although his numerous extramarital affairs do not stop. During one of these affairs that has kept John away from home...
(The entire section is 636 words.)