Saturday, January 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #13: Fire!! by Peter Bagge

When I got this book, I noted here that Zora Neale Hurston seemed like an odd choice for cartoonist Peter Bagge to biographize. But his introduction to the book itself makes his interest clearer: Hurston had politically idiosyncratic views, and -- though Bagge never uses the word -- seems to be as close to a libertarian as a black woman could be in the early Twentieth Century. So all is much clearer now.

Like Woman Rebel, his biography of Margaret Sanger, Fire!! tells the long, event-filled story of one woman's life in probably too-few comics pages (seventy-two, in this case), so that every page or two is a discreet event that Bagge needs to get into his narrative. There are twenty-six pages of notes to contextualize and explain the comics pages, which does not make for the most smooth or integrated reading experience. (I wonder if Fire!! will have its best life in classrooms and school libraries -- it's a solid look at an important literary-historical figure in a format that will appeal to a lot of kids who don't want to read too much.)

In case you don't know, Hurston was a writer, published as a novelist and a collector of folklore, active mostly in the 1930s and '40s and associated with the Harlem Renaissance in New York during the early part of that time. She grew up in an all-black town in central Florida, the somewhat wild and somewhat coddled daughter of two of the leading figures in that town, to the age of thirteen, when her mother died and upended her life entirely. Her next decade or so was spent all over, in often rough circumstances, but she eventually finished high school in her late 20s (having shaved a decade off her age to pretend to still be a teen) and bounced through several colleges before landing at Barnard College in 1925 and graduating three years later at the age of 37. (Still pretending to be ten years younger, which she kept up the rest of her life.)

She's most famous these days for Their Eyes Were Watching God, her semi-autobiographical 1937 novel. But she was spent years on the road collecting and writing local folklore stories, first in the rural US South and then in several Carribbean nations. And she was a very colorful character, to put it mildly -- boisterous, demanding, flamboyant, opinionated, married multiple times, profoundly original and unique.

Bagge does some justice to Hurston, and all of his pages are good. But, like Woman Rebel, Fire!! feels rushed and cramped, like what's left of five pounds of flour after it's been dumped into a two-pound sack. His story would have been seriously improved by either focusing on a particular period of Hurston's life, or by giving the narrative more pages to breathe and consequently some space that isn't just hurtling from one major event to another.

Fire!! will be a boon to thousands of young people looking to write a short biographical paper on someone important -- young people still do that, don't they? And it's a nice reminder of a fine writer who was also a deeply interesting and grumpily particular person. But I do wish it was more than that, because it could have been.

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