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Laughter and Living
on 13 November 2002
Despite his considerable output of poetry, short stories and autobiographical work, this is Langston Hughes' only novel. It is the tremendously crafted story of Sandy, a black child of the 1920s in rural Kansas. In poignant tightly written chapters, Hughes' depicts various events in Sandy's life often slipping into the perspective of those closest to him. Sandy lives most his life with his strong-willed and deeply religious grandmother Aunt Hager. She is a benevolent woman who desires peaceful racial relations despite the overwhelming amount of racism and discrimination professed by both white and black community members. Sandy's mother Annjee is a loving and hard working woman eternally devoted to her husband Jimboy who is a good hearted man constantly on the move. Sandy's aunt Tempy is a well-off woman trying to immerse herself in white society and denigrating her own race in the process. His other aunt Harriett is a wilful woman who turns from the church for a different kind of existence. Through these expertly drawn characters, Sandy views their examples and he must make the choices that will effect his future. The novel is a tremendous chronicle of the struggle of a family to survive financially. It gives accounts of the psychological dilemma created by growing in a racially divided society and the diffuse joy in life that can be found even in troubling circumstances.
Maya Angelou wrote of Not Without Laughter: "This book was written when preachers had to be poets and poets were preachers, because they needed to be available to all the people all the time." The messages this novel gives are not subtle. But, through its varied perspectives and eloquently written prose, it envelops the issues it preaches with emotionally edifying ideas. It leaves the reader with a feeling of deep connection to all the characters, particularly the beautiful Sandy in whom we invest our hope and trust to fulfil his potential to become a good, intelligent and strong man who does not feel limited by his racial heritage despite any restrictions society may attempt to place for him. Although it may be a shame that Hughes never wrote another novel as he aptly demonstrated his skill in this one, Not Without Laughter stands as shining work be a skilled artist.