The book is the story of Janie's life from age 16, when she first wakes up to the world of sexuality by noticing the bees and the pear tree, through three husbands (left one, buried two) to age about 42. She was raised by her grandmother, who was born into slavery and who had her daughter as the Civil War was ending. Nanny had plans for her daughter: she wanted her to become as schoolteacher. But the schoolteacher raped her when she was 17, and after Janie was born, her mother wandered off. So Nanny shifted her plans to her granddaughter, and rather than have her become a schoolteacher, she decides Janie will Marry Well.
And she does, to the only black man in town with an organ in his house, a man who is so happy to have beautiful Janie in the house that he chops wood for her and carries water -- the characteristic tasks of women and girls. But she doesn't love him and she's really unhappy about this cold, hard world her grandmother has placed her in. When Joe Sparks comes along, it only takes a few weeks to convince Janie to leave her husband and go with Jody to a new town that will be just for black people.
The town, when they arrive, is very small. Jody buys more land, builds a store and a house, sells parcels of the land and rents more. He becomes Mayor and Janie runs the store. But he's very critical and he wants to put her on more or less the same in-a-class-by-herself pedestal that her grandmother had picked out for her. Their marriage becomes a silent, scorched field until he dies of kidney failure. And that's probably where things would have ended for Janie: still running the store with hired help and living in the house, happy to have her freedom and her friend Phoeby. But Tea Cake shows up and reminds her of all the things she woke up to back when she was sixteen and then had to suppress as soon as she was married (immediately). So rather than marry any of the prosperous widowers looking to combine property, she leaves town to marry Tea Cake. There's a brief railroad interlude, and then they go to the Everglades, where they stay for two seasons until they flee, belatedly, from a hurricane that threatens to dump a diked up lake on them. They survive, but Tea Cake is bit by a rabid dog as he is trying to save Janie from drowning. A month later, Janie is forced to shoot him before he kills her in a jealous, delirious rage. She is tried and acquitted the same day, buried him and shortly thereafter returns to the small town where she still owns the house and tells the whole story to her friend Phoeby. Tea Cake's absence is mourned, but he'll never truly be dead as long as she is alive.
The dialog throughout is in dialect, but a large chunk of the story is in standard English. While my construction of the timeline puts the hurricane in 1925, the descriptions sound like things ripped from the 1927 flood. It's a great book: short, enormous appeal, great narrative thrust, beautiful language. The characters are memorable. The political digressions are short and punchy and entirely inoffensive to me.
It's also a really weird book. A lot of the politics revolve around discrimination and judgment within black communities in a way that is specific to those communities, however, the moral -- you shouldn't live your life for stuff, you should live your life for love -- is one that would have had appeal in a lot of communities when it was published and down to now. Honestly, you could call this thing chick-lit and you would not be far off. I don't know that anyone has ever suggested to me that Zora Neal Hurston wrote chick-lit before chick-lit existed, and perhaps this is such an inappropriate thing to say that I should not say it at all.
But it felt kinda like a _really_ good chick-lit novel. And unlike a lot of chick-lit, I believed that the sorrows and sufferings of Janie were both quite real and not largely sufferings that she had brought upon herself (which is a problem I sometimes have with the genre).
There are a lot of interesting things to think about while reading (and after reading) this book. Hurston's depiction of the uses and rewards of gossip to the individual and the community is just fantastic. Her consistent and unambiguous dismissal of any approach to life that cuts one off from community, from play, from the chaos of having a good time, is refreshing. Just in case the events of the novel don't make it perfectly clear, she depicts the characters actually talking through these matters on occasion, and those conversations don't feel stilted or pedantic or implausible or anything like that. They feel pretty real: awkward, intense, things coming out not quite right and having to be clarified.
It's a really good book. It's definitely worth your time.
ETA: Wow. My timeline must be _really_ off. The wikipedia entry seems to think the book is depicting the Okeechobee hurricane of 1928.