Thursday, June 18, 2020

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could Talk
by James Baldwin
Read by Bahni Turpin
Published 1974 by Dial Press
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions–affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

My Thoughts:
Let's start with the easy part - the reading. I first "met" Bahni Turpin when I listened to The Hate U Give and was reintroduced to her in Red at the Bone. She's marvelous; the very voice of a young black woman. Imagine my surprise to find out that she's 58 years old! In looking at the work she's read, I'm tempted to go back and listen to some books I read in print just to see what she can do with those. 

Now the harder part. Until the movie adaptation of this book came out two years ago, I had never heard of this book. I was aware of James Baldwin but not his story or of the impact his books had had. It's a clear indication that I have much more work to do in my efforts to read diversely. 

I listened to this book at the same time I was reading Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy; it was the perfect fiction/nonfiction combination dealing with the unjust justice system as they both do. Joyce Carol Oates had this to say about that, in her review of this book:
"For Baldwin, the injustice of Fonny's situation is self-evident, and by no means unique: "Whoever discovered America deserved to be dragged home, in chains, to die," Tish's mother declares near the conclusion of the novel. Fonny's friend, Daniel, has also been falsely arrested and falsely convicted of a crime, years before, and his spirit broken by the humiliation of jail and the fact--which Baldwin stresses, and which cannot be stressed too emphatically--that the most devastating weapon of the oppressor is that of psychological terror. Physical punishment, even death, may at times be preferable to an existence in which men are denied their manhood and any genuine prospects of controlling their own lives. Fonny's love for Tish can be undermined by the fact that, as a black man, he cannot always protect her from the random insults of whites."
This is not just the story of a man falsely accused. It's also a love story and a story of family - the lengths we will go to for family and that "family" is not limited to those we are related to by blood. It's also a book about hope in the face of insurmountable odds. I have not yet seen the movie but it's my understanding that, in a surprisingly un-Hollywood twist, the movie doesn't leave the viewer with the kind of hope the book does. 

It's no mean feat for a man to write a book from the point of view of a young woman but Baldwin does it impressive; only occasionally did it seem apparent that the book had been written by a man. The story can be almost poetic and often has a dreamy feel but Baldwin also allows his characters to lash out, to become angry and mean at times. If Beale Street Could Talk was Baldwin's 13th book; he had clearly mastered his craft. 

I look forward to reading more of Baldwin's work and of watching this movie soon. 


  1. Was that fiction/nonfiction pairing planned?? Amazing luck if it just worked out that way! I thought both of those books were excellent... still need to see both movies though.

    1. It wasn't planned! I'm hoping to catch both movies this week, if I can talk my hubby into it.

  2. It's been a couple of years since I read the book but I didn't think it ended with hope. I felt like Baldwin left it very much that it wasn't going to end well. Maybe that's my pessimistic brain. I'll have to reread it and see if I missed the ending somehow. Glad you enjoyed it. I have yet to see the movie as well. It's on my list this summer for sure. And due to your review I just started Just Mercy.

    1. Well, hope in that he was out on bail at the end and the new baby had arrived. But given that we know how our criminal justice system works, I suppose that's not a lot to hang onto.

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