Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Moon's Favorite Child: Zora! by Dennis and Judith Fradin

One of Zora's early memories was her discovery that wherever she went, the moon followed her. She became convinced that she was special in this regard.

"The moon was so happy when I came out to play, that it ran shouting and shining after me like a pretty puppy dog. The other children didn't count."

Privileged to grow up in the all-black community of Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston did not experience discrimination as her child, so that her strongest asset was self-confidence and a life-long faith in her own uniqueness. Although she doubtless was the victim of race and gender discrimination later in her drive to become a successful writer, the failure of her literary works to find a large audience never destroyed her belief that she was destined for greatness, even in her last years still trying to complete the novel that would seize the world's attention.

Born in 1891, Zora was also lucky in her arrival in New York in the 1920s, throwing herself wholeheartedly into the excitement of the Jazz Age Harlem Renaissance. For a time the close friend and collaborator with Langston Hughes and Fanny Hurst, Zora wrangled her way into Barnard, found herself a patron in the person of wealthy widow Charlotte Mason (who insisted upon being called "Godmother," wrote plays, musicals, essays, and short stories, some of them well received by critics but none of them financial successes, and collected folklore with the Library of Congress' Alan Lomax throughout the rural south and Caribbean. Out of this experience Hurston wrote several novels, including her best-known, Their Eyes Were On God.

But none of Zora's writing--novels, folklore anthologies, even an autobiography--ever sold more than 1000 copies in her lifetime and produced little income, and she lived off occasional grants and a variety of jobs--from movie writer to college instructor to housemaid. Always short on money (once down to four cents), Zora always kept her strong self-esteem in place. While she was working as a cook and maid for a wealthy Miami Gold Coast couple, her employers were astonished to open their latest Saturday Evening Post and discover a short story by their middle-aged uniformed maid, and when the story made the local and then national newspapers, the ever-opportunistic Zora made the best of the publicity:

"It certainly has turned out to be one slam of a publicity do-dad," she told her editor.

Zora Neale Hurston never reached her vision of fame and fortune in her lifetime, but her works have since been rediscovered, and she is now recognized as one of the major voices of her time. Noted non-fiction writers Judith and Dennis Fradin's forthcoming Zora!: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) takes a fresh look at the colorful, chaotic, but amazing life of this larger-than-life personality who emerged from the Harlem Renaissance and whose inimitable presence has come to be one of the definitive African American women writers of her period.

Dennis and Judith Fradin's biography of the iconoclastic Zora is quite readable, filled with quotes and anecdotes, easily accessible to middle readers, and is amply adorned with numerous photos and graphics, An extensive appendix includes a time line, bibliography, source notes, and index, making this book a fine source for middle-school research assignments. "This accessible biography introduces Zora Neale Hurston's remarkable life and work to a new generation of readers," says Booklist

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