The Temple of My Familiar

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Alice Walker’s first work since her highly acclaimed THE COLOR PURPLE is a book about time and change. Though written from a “womanist” viewpoint, THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR follows both women and men through what becomes a history of the evolution of humankind. This evolutionary aspect is especially found in the chapters that tell the tales of Miss Lissie’s various incarnations, including a brief, horrifying stint as a white man in a black tribe. The intertwining of all the separate narratives takes place as people only mentioned in passing in one chapter become the focal character in another chapter. For example, the white woman (Mary Jane) who rescues Carlotta and her mother, Zede, from a prison camp in South America ends up in Africa married to Fanny and Nzingha’s black African father, Ola. Fanny is the granddaughter of Mama Shug and Mama Celie, both characters from THE COLOR PURPLE.

Though Shug and Celie play a background role in the narrative, they are two of the most likable and human characters in the book, palpably real in a way that the novel’s more prominent characters are not. Shug and Celie are warm, down-to-earth (especially in expounding “the gospel according to Shug”), and very human. For example, Celie is not very nice to her dog until Shug teaches him to bite the hand that beats him. They are fallible, but not in the strained way that other characters are. When, for example, Carlotta’s husband, Arveyda, leaves her for her mother, Zede, the reader is likely to feel cheated, for no credible motivation has been supplied--a recurring problem throughout the novel. It is hard to feel any deep connection with Walker’s characters, and the resolution of their conflicts is too pat to be satisfying.

Nevertheless, readers who are interested in the theories of University of California at Los Angeles archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who posits an Edenic prehistoric era marked by worship of female deities, will find in THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR a kindred spirit.