George Copeland’s life stretches from before 1900 to the early 1960’s. It covers roughly three generations of blacks in the state of Georgia, and his three lives roughly correspond to the generations. Alice Walker, however, does not focus exclusively on George Copeland to characterize the three generations. She devotes the first half of the novel to Grange’s son, Brownfield, to reveal what Grange was as a young man; to capture the essence of Grange’s “third life,” she tells the story of Ruth, Grange’s granddaughter. Only the account of the middle period of Grange’s life, his ten-year experience in the North, relies totally on Grange’s own experiences; those are told in flashback, and remain a secret even to Ruth, to whom Grange confides almost everything else. They are the crucial events that make him different from his son and allow him to go beyond a tainted past to cope creatively with the future. Grange’s new attitude toward blacks and American society derives both from his own experience and reflection and from his granddaughter’s fresh, instinctive responses to her world. What begins as a novel of overwhelming depression, of seemingly absolute entrapment, ends as an encouraging tribute to the human spirit.
Brownfield’s life is a repetition of his father’s—up to the crucial moment of change. A visit by his uncle, aunt, and cousins from the North creates for him the illusion that somewhere outside the South exists a world where blacks are, like whites, rich and free. In dreams contentment is confused with whiteness; he never develops a pride in his race. His own family is disintegrating, as his father, Grange, inextricably in debt to a white boss, Shipley, decides there is no hope of a future for him and his wife and children. He takes out his frustrations in wife-beating and unfaithfulness, especially (one learns later) with Josie, a prostitute in Baker County, just to the north. When Grange finally decides to escape to the North, his wife, Margaret, poisons herself and her new baby (not Grange’s but a white man’s). In a symbolic series of moves, Brownfield follows in his father’s footsteps, going only as far as Josie’s Dew Drop Inn. Suggesting a genetic and environmental determinism, Walker has him take up with Josie, as his father had done. After two years of being Josie’s and her daughter’s lover, and...
(The entire section is 965 words.)