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4.5 out of 5 stars19
4.5 out of 5 stars
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This was my second reading of James Baldwin's initial novel, first read 40 some years ago, and it rang even more powerful the second time around. Baldwin is the essential chronicler of the Black American experience, in all its anguish. The novel was first published in 1953, and was primarily set in mid-Depression Harlem, with flashbacks to the rural southern antecedents of the main characters, reaching all the way back to the days of slavery. It was Florence, who must have been approaching 60, whose mother was a slave and who "lost two children to the auction block." Baldwin only briefly sketches Florence's mother, but this slender fact seemed to explain so much of the tragic and often dysfunctional family life of the descendents of those families which had been forcibly broken up.

Religion is a major theme in the novel; that particular raucous, tambourine shaking, speaking-in-tongues spirituality espoused in store-front churches that set out the folding chairs before the service. It sure does help to know the Bible to understand many of the references. If I found any weakness in the novel, and perhaps it is a personal weakness instead, it was the lengthy passages of pure "preachin'", but I persevered, knowing that it really did give the flavor of an authentic experience. Baldwin depicts a world of good and evil, with the church as the vehicle to salvation, but he is also relentless in describing the hypocritical lives of the preachers, especially Gabriel, who "falls" and falls again. Although the church is featured as the one solid bedrock that can help anchor family life, I agree with another reviewer who points out that the anchor impeded Black economic development by promising the otherworldliness of "pie in the sky," which distracted the believers from taking actions that would remedy the injustices that society imposed, as the legacy of slavery lingered.

The novel unfolds around John, the 14 year old son of Elizabeth, who is married to Gabriel. Florence is Gabriel's older sister. In part I of the book, the stage is set; all the characters are introduced, and the drama centers around the knifing of John's younger brother, Roy. In this section we learn that John is illegitimate, and that Gabriel loves his own son, Roy, more, and has pinned his hopes of salvation on him. Yet it is Roy that seems to have the "mark of the devil" on him, no doubt reflecting the same mark on his father. It is in the second part, by far the largest portion of the book, that Baldwin tells the story, each in a separate chapter, of the three principal adults: Gabriel, Florence, and Elizabeth. These portraits are dazzling, and Baldwin has immense narrative power, revealing one aspect of their lives in a sentence or two, and then several pages later explaining how this occurred. The women "who have born the weight of men," no doubt literally and metaphorically, come off the better, and the stronger. Gabriel's hypocrisy is not as all-encompassing as, say, Elmer Gantry, for he does truly struggle with the demons within. All the characters did indeed have the steep side of the mountain to climb.

There are many scenes whose depiction can take your breath away. One that I found particularly strong was a down south revival, with 20 or more preachers. The night is when the young Gabriel makes his mark as a preacher. Afterwards, the preachers partake of a banquet. They are seated separately, upstairs, the women serve them. They tell ribald jokes, and even ridicule one of their servers who had been gang-raped by whites. That woman would become Gabriel's first wife, but the insights he might have gathered from his fellow preacher's conduct did not endure.

For those who have a copy of the collection of photographs entitled The Family of Man it is impossible fo
r me to look at the picture on page 129, the black woman laying on the bedcovers, the black man sitting on the edge, each in deep middle age, obviously talking about "their troubles," without thinking that this is a picture of Gabriel and Elizabeth Grimes.

Finally, in terms of foreshadowing, one wonders when Baldwin wrote this book if he anticipated his own fate. Florence's husband dies, and is buried in France, during what was once called "The Great War.". Baldwin could no longer stomach the anguish that he depicted, eventually seeking solace in France. He is buried high on the hill, at St. Paul de Vance, overlooking the Mediterranean. A wonderful 5-star plus read, especially again.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on January 29, 2010)
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on 24 February 2008
Despite everyone telling me what a powerful book this was and what a life changing impact it had on them and their views I found this not to be the case. Perhaps I just lack the context of growing up the civil rights era though. That's not to say this is by any means a bad book. It's an interesting read detailing the lives of various members of one family, the mistakes they make and their turning away and return to the Lord. The complex father son relationship is especially well written about and contains perhaps the most autobiographical part of the novel. It shows their fallings and explains their harshness, the characters are engaging and it paints a vivid picture of the black community in America during the early to middle twentieth century particularly with their relationship to the church.
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on 28 October 2009
Go Tell it on the Mountain was the first novel published by well known writer James Baldwin. Loosely based on his own life, it tells the story of John, a 14-year-old boy and his family growing up Christian and African-American in Harlem, New York. The novel examines the hypocrisy of many church followers--a woman who has a child out-of-wedlock with a man she loves seems much less sinful than a fervent preacher with a hidden bastard.

The novel also looks at domestic violence, gender relatons, and of course, racial relations. I don't believe there were any white characters in this book, but there was racism all the same. People called each other racial epithets, some women used bleaching creams to try and look whiter, and they discriminate against each other based on the hue of their skin.

James Baldwin knows how to tell a tale. On some level, I empathized with every character. Baldwin has been criticized by making "uneducated" peoples' thoughts too poetic, but it makes the prose lovely to read--and who's to say you must be educated to be poetic? It's very different from Giovanni's Room, the other James Baldwin work I've read. I'd definitely recommend it as essential American literature.
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on 16 September 2009
Having just read this book, I realise that it is possible to be a little over enthusiastic. So, I shall try to stand back far enough to give a proper critique.

The book is simple, yet complicated. It deals with the lives of four main characters, but focused on John - a teenage boy. The book discusses their journeys and histories, and how these come to impact one another, as well as how previous `sins' stay with.

Also, in these stories you learn about black segregation, racism, family pressures, as well as an examination of the black church (I say that as a white Englishman, the lines may be less obvious in the USA).

It can at times be difficult to follow, as the story jumps around a bit; but this is overcome with the beauty of his prose. It, even after many years, maintains a hard-edged electricity about it. This is true for both dialogue and the narrative. You can feel the rhythmic pulses in their speech, and the narrative, glides; painting wonderful imagery through use of metaphor. In some ways this is a collection of poems. A very beautifully written book and one I would recommend to everyone.
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on 24 February 2003
James Baldwins first novel, in which he deals with issues he had with his father, religion and his sexuality, though it is definitely not a autobiographical account of his life.
It concerns a young black boyin harlem called Johnny Grimes, destined to become a preahcer like his father, but he has doubts, and struggles with a hatred for his father, and an attraction towards an older boy in the congregation. However, the narrative jumps from him through the novel, and we learn about the past of his father, his mother and his auntie.
This is a wondefully emotive and affecting book, with an underlying sense of sadness running throughout, written in a beautifully lyrical style.
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A powerful, agonising, coming of age story of a 14 year old black boy in 1930's Harlem. He is struggling with his transition to manhood, and raging against both his heavenly and earthly fathers. His father is a preacher and we learn of his past, that of his his mother and aunt, and their ancestry in slavery. I had never previously read a book which so closely took me to what it must feel like to be black and descended from slaves, and to be bound to loathe and distrust white people for that.

I felt I wanted to follow Johnny Grimes into his house at the end, to discover what became of him and his family.
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on 13 May 2014
Having seen in London black American writer James Baldwin's play The Amen Corner, which was absolutely brilliant and beautifully acted, I went on to read Go Tell it on the Mountain, his semi-autobiographical novel. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of black people's struggle for equality in the USA before the Civil Rights movement.
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I came to Baldwin through his essays, which are vivid, incisive, and full of raw emotion. By contrast, most of his novels are mediocre. Nonetheless, this novel is very good, a glimpse at a life that is utterly alien and beautifully, indeed brilliantely, captured.

It is the story of a struggling boy - very bright, caught in a culture and society that excludes him as a black. If you read this, you will understand how he feels and what he struggles for. That is what a good novel does, and this is very good.

Recommended with warmth.
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on 15 June 2014
book about the struggle of a young black teen boy against his fanatic religious father. What first seems to be as a fight of a boy against the will of its parents result in a flash back of all characters, pretending to serve the Lord but they all have sinned more in life than young John probably will ever do.
Although 60 years old, it reveals that not much has changed and that most fanatic religious people most of the time or the most hypocrite sinners
beautiful story, but expected more of the end
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on 24 June 2013
A classic novel which reminds us of the iniquities of segregation in the US. Baldwin's lyrical language
strongly influenced by gospel church and the bible still works His characters are strongly drawn and the central relationship between stepfather and stepson drives the plot. The denouement is a bit too long, but it was his first novel. It stands the test of time.
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