Dust Tracks on a Road (Book Review)

Happy Monday!

Dust Tracks on a Road is an autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston.  I remembered reading a bit of “Their Eyes were Watching God”, also the Crash Course Lit episode is excellent, the first 3.5 minutes of which give a pretty neat summary of her life plus some extra tidbits, in fact let’s justs have a look shall we?

 

I decided to pick this book up in a reading project I’m starting where I plan to fill out my knowledge by reading books considered an “American Classics”(1) (with a focus on the 20th century lit) and the follow the reading list provided from Crash Course Lit(2).  


Overall Dust Tracks on a Road, from here out referred to as Dust Tracks, left me withmixed feelings.  That being said and without giving spoilers, I can say I recommend the book based on its historical and literary significance but unless you’re seeking it out for it’s historical or literary significance, I wouldn’t give it high priority.  

Footnotes:

  1. This burgeoning list has begun with this list, thanks to wikipedia:
    Books referred to as a “Great American Novel”[edit]

At one time, the following works have been considered to be a Great American Novel:

19th century

20th century

21st century

Plus these United States National Epics:

 

  1. Crash Course Lit list (what is listed here are the ones that I have not yet read AND are not already listed above; this is not an exhaustive list of the books covered in all three seasons of CC lit):

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Sula by Toni Morrison

(**SPOILERS BELOW**)

 

Genre(s): Auto-biography, creative non-fiction, American history

Favourite Quotes/Scenes:

  1. “Truth is a letter from courage.” p 41
  2. I really found the little imaginary game child Zora about Miss Corn-silk and Mr. Sweet-smell (a bar of soap) unusually compelling p. 73-77
  3. Booker T. Washinton said once that you must not judge a man by the heights to which he has risen, but by the depths from which he came.” p. 172
  4. “Research is formalized curiosity.” p. 174
  5. “…as timid as an egg without a shell.” p. 188

 

Take Away:

This book is a case of “losing steam”.  A little over half the book(1), chapters 1 to 10 are excellent.  I love how Hurston uses the first three chapters to weave the cloth which she was cut by using chapter 1 to establish Eationville, Florida (Hurston’s birthplace), chapter 2 to explore the early dynamic of her parents’ relationship, and it’s not until chapter 3 where Hurston herself is born.  

The picture of childhood Hurston paints for us is a socially complex but also captures a sweet nativity in her youngest memories.  One of the memories that sticks with me is the Miss Corn-silk and the Mr Sweet Smell episode in chapter 5.  Not only is it fascinating to watch Hurston’s story telling scope germinate(2) but it also captures a feeling of isolation she describes throughout the book which on the surface, just like the game she plays, looks like a rich social life with weddings and scandals and suspense (almost like a micro-story foreshadowing the way she would later view her own life looking back, as if the book was the space below the house and the words the found objects shaped into people and personalities and 50 years later she’s still playing storytelling games).  The focus on these childhood games and exploration of her interior self help reinforce the sense of isolation because I as a reader frequently forgot that she had siblings, which I’m sure influenced her in some ways however this aspect is never explored.  Focusing on these details almosts gives me the feeling that she saw herself as an only child of sorts, separate from the rest of her family.  

Another interesting idea Hurston touches on but never fully develops are her visions. Ultimately these visions do little, if anything, to contribute to the story or her character and this is some of the disappointment of loose ends contributes to a dead weight that drags the overall story down.  The visions are of no doubt prime personal significance to the author, which she shows the reader by using the event of getting these visions as a paradigm shift in consciousness in chapter 4 however beyond a few mentions later in the text she does not follow up on all 12 visions nor the visions which are realised work as significant events in the overall narrative.  

One of the things Hurston does the best in the first 10 chapters is each chapter opens with a serious punch:

Chapter 1 – Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me.

Chapter 2 – Into this burly, boiling, hard-hitting, rugged-individualistic setting walked one day a tall, heavy-muscled mulatto [sic] who resolved to put down roots.
Chapter 5 – Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.

Chapter 8 – There is something about poverty  that smells like death.

Chapter 9 – Back, out walking on fly-paper again.           

However this trend of strong prose slows to a grinding halt by chapter 11, “While I was in the research field in 1929, the idea of ‘Jonah’s Gourd Vine” came to me.” This opening sentence, is the most dry opening yet and acts as a projection for the rest of the book.  Until chapter 10 the narrative was witty and funny and sorta lacked direction but felt appropriate because the impression left is that her life generally lacked direction.  From chapter 11 on I get the feeling Hurston mined all her useful/entertaining memories of youth and then decided to use the last bit of the book discussing her painfully slow and bitter 20’s and 30’s.    

After discussing some failed marriages, a couple of friendships, the black community she concludes the book after a fairly ideological chapter with a sour-sweet conclusion “Let us all be kissing-friends. Consider with tolerance and patience, we godly demons may breed a noble world in a few hundred generations or so. Maybe all of us who do not have the good fortune to meet, or meet again, in this world, will meet at a barbecue.” I think it’s fitting conclusion but it makes me hope the quotation from the introduction of the book is accurate, “Thus, one can only view Dust Tracks as the beginning of the decline of a great personality.” (p viii, Dellita L. Martin in the 1986 version published by Virago)


Footnotes:

  1. About 71.6% if you don’t count the Appendix (205/286) and 58.9% (205/348) if you count the Appendix.   
  2. I’m assuming this is not one of the parts she made up but she does remember this episode in impressive clarity since she was writing this nearly 50 years later, so there’s a case either way.  
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