How to rate this book? On the basis of the writing quality alone, it should rate five stars. Just read the first page and you will be swept away by Hurston's magnificent prose:
"The sun was gone but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment."
Beyond this, Hurston is able to write with two entirely different voices and glide seamlessly from one to the other, even within a single phrase. A supremely gifted writer, sure of her subject.
But it's with her other voice that I encountered some difficulty; not that her use of the vernacular of the black, deep south characters was less than authentic. Rather that at times she became too enraptured with their banality and nonsense, their tendency to attack and belittle to bolster their own self-esteem. The tiresome, trivial episode of Matt Bonner's yellow mule is a case in point; it just goes on and on for the better part of a chapter. I'm reminded of a comment that someone made about Mark Twain, that he became so much in love with his character, Tom Sawyer that he allowed his character to get away with far too much. Self-discipline is a necessary part of the creative process. I felt that permitting her characters to misbehave as she did was a form of self-indulgence on Hurston's part. I applaud her authenticity and yet I felt that she could have made her point equally well in far fewer words. Hence, four stars rather than five. Perhaps I'm showing some prejudice -- or just being picky.