Go Tell It On The Mountain – from 101BOOKS.NET

 Robert Bruce whose site 101BOOKS.NET, is consistently voted the Best Book Blog. It is definitely my favorite book blog. He has kindly allowed me to reblog one of his posts about Go Tell It on The Mountain, but be sure to check out more of his work at 101books.net

Robert is reading 100 of Time Magazine‘s greatest English-speaking novels since 1923 (plus Ulysses) and blogs daily. I have chosen Go Tell It On the Mountain, as it is a favorite novels of two of my character in my latest novel Under The Bed.

Book #19: Go Tell It On The Mountain

by Robert on June 15, 2011

Sometimes, when I read a book, I’m more taken by the writing than the story.

It’s not that the story is bad–it’s usually powerful, in fact–after all, an author who can captivate a reader with his writing usually has enough wherewithal to create a unique plot.

But, sometimes, when I close the book, when I read that last word, I stop and reflect more about the author as a writer than as a storyteller. And that was definitely the case with Go Tell It On The Mountain.

From a writing standpoint, James Baldwin is one of the best authors I’ve read. I gave you an excerpt of his writing in yesterday’s post, and that’s just a small sample. Go Tell It On The Mountain is beautifully told.

Here’s another passage that describes 14-year-old John’s spiritual tension as he struggles with believing in God and his hatred toward his father. It’s a theme that carries throughout the book.


“He lived for the day when his father would be dying and he, John, would curse him on his death-bed. And this was why, though he had been born in the faith and had been surrounded all his life by the saints and by their prayers and their rejoicing, and though the tabernacle in which they worshipped was more completely real to him than the several precarious homes in which he and his family had lived, John’s heart was hardened against the Lord. His father was God’s minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.”

But what of the story?

Set in 1930s Harlem, Go Tell It On The Mountain centers on this 14-year-old boy, John, who is conflicted between a faith he doesn’t believe inbut still feels drawn to. His father, Gabriel–who is also a deacon and former minister at their church, “Temple of the Fire Baptized”–abuses John and his mother, Elizabeth. He’s a mean, hellfire and brimstone kind of guy, who claims to be “God’s annointed.”

While I would say John is the central character, Baldwin also tells the story of three other characters: Gabriel, Aunt Florence, and John’s mother, Elizabeth. The book is broken up into sections that focus on on each character, shifting the story between their past and their present.

Other than the writing, two other things stand out to me about this novel.

First, the dialogue. I’m no expert on African-American dialect in 1930s Harlem, but Baldwin seems to capture it well. Consider this exchange between Aunt Florence and her brother, Gabriel. Aunt Florence, my favorite character in the novel, tells it like it is. In this situation, she’s confronting her brother about his past misdeeds.

“Look like,” she said, “you think the Lord’s a man like you; you think you can fool Him like you fool men, and you think He forgets, like men. But God don’t forget nothing, Gabriel–if your name’s down there in the Book, like you say, it’s got all what you done right down there with it. And you going to answer for it, too.”

Out of context, you might not appreciate that dialogue. But it’s a strong characteristic of this book. It’s another novel where I can almost hear these characters speak as I read. Baldwin really nailed the dialogue.

Second, Baldwin draws heavily from biblical stories throughout Go Tell It On The Mountain. It’s easy to see how he was once a teenage pastor.

I noticed allegories and illusions to biblical stories in many places. For instance, Gabriel is an Abraham-like figure–his first wife was barren, and unwilling to wait on God to provide, Gabriel sought out the company of a prostitute and fathered an illegitimate child with her.

The main character, John, and his brother, Roy, are similar to Jacob and Esau in Scripture. Esau (read: Roy), the first-born, the legitimate child, who is a hellian yet remains the apple of his father’s eye.

And John, the good son, the one that, though he’s illegitimate (unlike Jacob in the Bible) is more capable of making Gabriel proud. But Gabriel mirrors the blindness of Isaac in Scripture by overlooking the flaws of his elder son.

akandrew.com.101books.net,James Baldwin

James Baldwin

James Baldwin (Photo: MDCArchives)

James Baldwin is quoted as saying, “Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.” I’m not sure who Baldwin was talking about there, as I haven’t been able to source the quote, but it perfectly describes his characterization of Gabriel in Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Your dislike for Gabriel–his arrogance, his brutality, his hypocrisy–will carry you through this novel. Though the story somewhat revolves around John, it’s Gabriel who carries this story. You’ll feel his presence on the characters throughout the book.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, spiritual or not, this is a strong book. You’ll read a moving story about a young boy’s growth into maturity, despite the presence of an overbearing and abusive father.

More than all of that, though, you’ll hopefully appreciate James Baldwin’s talent as a writer. For me, that alone makes this book worth the read.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”

The Meaning: The story dives into the gray areas of faith. Men who profess absolute truth but live in absolute hypocrisy. In that murkiness, though, Baldwin shows redemption is still possible.

Highlights: James Baldwin has a cadence, a rythym with his writing that is simply beautiful. Amazing that Go Tell It On The Mountain was Baldwin’s first novel. Also, I think Baldwin does a excellent job of leaving the discussion open about Christianity and the church. Considering his upbringing, I think it could have been easy for him to come down hard one way or the other.

Lowlights: A lot of the story occurs in the past, explaining the history of some of the characters. I would’ve enjoyed seeing a little more in the present, and a little more focus on the main character, John.

Memorable Line: “John and his father stared at each other, struck dumb and still and with something come to life between them–while the Holy Ghost spoke. Gabriel had never seen such a look on John’s face before; Satan, at that moment, stared out of John’s eyes while the Spirit spoke.”

Final Thoughts: James Baldwin could make an infomercial poetic. The guy could flat write, and that’s what made Go Tell It On The Mountain memorable for me. I would say that anyone who is a writer or claims to be a writer should read this book. It’s beautifully told.

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  I hope you will find Robert  @robertbruce76  or at his  website: 101books.net.  There’s lots of great stuff there, not just a summary of each novel like this post. Oh, and while you’re there, tell him A.K. sent you!

What is your favorite James Baldwin book, or favorite book set in New York City?

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

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  1. Though I don’t read much that falls into explorations of real life, I do love reading about explorations into human nature. This sounds like a great read.
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  2. I tend to read more toward, horror, paranormal mystery, fantasy – hmmm, wonder what that says about myself – grin
    You seem very passionate about this author, and his book Go tell it on the mountain – from what you describe it sounds like a powerful book of faith and the choice we make – sounds like it could be worth straying from my comfort zone 🙂
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  3. Strangely enough, I don’t follow Bruce’s blog so I’ve now added it to my RSS reader. I really like how he lays out his posts. I’ve only read a few Baldwin essays due to a few of the nonfiction classes I’ve taken in the past, but I really should add this one to my TBR list as well. For me, it’s more often than not more about the writing than the story, so I can tell from this post Baldwin would be a no-brainer for me to want to read more of his works.
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    • Glad I’ve introduced you to 101Books Jeri. I really enjoy Robert’s conversational style, and my goodness he manages to put out a new blog virtually everyday! Kudos to him. I don’t always agree with his assessment, but often do. It’s years since I first read this novel, so it was an eye opener for me just how good it still was.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Go Tell It On The Mountain – from 101BOOKS.NETMy Profile

  4. This statement really resonates with me: “Sometimes, when I read a book, I’m more taken by the writing than the story. It’s not that the story is bad–it’s usually powerful, in fact–after all, an author who can captivate a reader with his writing usually has enough wherewithal to create a unique plot.

    Am currently reading a book (Swedish) that’s set around Harley Street in London in the early 1800s. When I started reading it I thought oh,oh…But then what is stated above happened. The plot is created by the writing…
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  5. I haven’t read any books by James Baldwin, which is odd as I’m an avid reader, but I certainly plan on checking out ‘Go Tell it On the Mountain’. It sounds like a terrific read.
    Thanks for letting me know about this author.

  6. I loved this book. So glad you highlighted it because it’s been a while that I read it, but you brought back some good memories. I like the way you separate your blog into the high points and low points. Nice recap. Might have to read it again.
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  7. I have often found these kinds of reads fascinating. One, because of the way they explore the human condition and all it failings, two, how that all fits into our humanity. I do think I would enjoy this read A.K.
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  8. I have never read this book but love epics and books that have a base in non-fiction. When that is the case I can really delve into the situation and transplant myself back in time. These kinds of books are like windows. Thanks, Tim
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    • I’m with you on that Tim. Nothing like a good book that can carry you into a different time and place and give you a real understanding of what life was like. I also particularly enjoy novels that are based on true events too. I think fiction really helps them to come across in a way that non- fiction doesn’t always grab me. Thanks for stopping by:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Go Tell It On The Mountain – from 101BOOKS.NETMy Profile

  9. Thank you (and Mr. Bruce) for introducing me to a new (to me) author. I’m captivated by this description and excerpts, and will have to track down this book.
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  10. Perhaps my favorite author of all time, James Baldwin was a truly brilliant man and writer. I think my overall favorite book of Baldwin’s is If Beale Street Could Talk. I find his writings brutally honest where he bares his own experiences with incomparable detail. Thank you for bringing his works to life….again.
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    • Thanks so much Edward. I was truly shocked when I reread this novel just how open his work was .As you say, brutally honest. Particularly striking for the era in which he was writing. It really took a lot of courage. I will def. check out If Beale St Could Talk as I’ve not read that one. Thanks so much for your comment:-)
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  11. Many people today don’t know about James Baldwin. As I grew up in the 60’s during great racial strife in the U.S., I remember him an iconic and controversial figure, very much in the news. I believe his legacy has grown since his death, which is so often the case with writers who break new ground, as he did.
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  12. I am also frequently more engaged by the writing than by the plot. In a small way it is like hearing an excellent cover version of an excellent song and being most impressed by the version while recognizing the value of the original
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  13. Hey A.K I like the way you sliced through a writer’s writing and the story they tell. Two different things which can be difficult to sift. But I do agree that if you have that eye for good writing you can be drawn to reading more for the writing than for the story. I find there contradictory kind of people are quite many in the world. The Gabriels who torment others yet claiming to be the “anointed one”. Quite true.
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  14. This sounds like a very interesting book. I have know a few people who spend the majority of their time in church and the rest of their time as hypocrites with hateful our lustful attitudes. Thanks for sharing
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  15. I never had the chance to read any of his works. But from the description you gave above, I feel I should go for this book.
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  16. I love James Baldwin’s writing! Sometimes when I read his work, I think about how often I edit/re-edit and edit again for the sake of the reader and I imagine that he didn’t. I often read portions that I know weren’t written for the readers understanding but rather how he wanted to communicate it and think that if he were writing for today’s literary snobs they may have rejected his work. On another note, this was timely. I wrote and posted an article that some chose to dissect for the sake of the gender of the analogy than the actual meaning of the anecdote. It was suggested that I write, switching between genders or without gender at all so as not to alienate the reader. I think in this case I will write like Mr. Baldwin and focus on the story not catering to the pc nature of today’s reader.

    • Good to meet another lover of Baldwin’s work:-) You make an excellent point about his work, and rewriting. How much he edited the work is hard to say, but certainly he didn’t edit the content to fit into a popular mold, which was often incredibly courageous given that he was both gay and African American. As writers we do have to make a choice about how true to ourselves we want to be in our work, especially if we know it might effect potential sales. Good for you on sticking to writing what you felt you wanted to write. Thanks so much for your comment.
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  17. I have to say that I never read any of James Baldwin’s writing. When I read a book I don’t really think about the plot but will think about how well the book was written or how poorly it is written which will determine whether I can continue reading. The writing is what draws you in and continue reading.
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  18. That was a brilliant book review. I feel the draw of the book, well to be honest the draw of the writing more than the story and yet I don’t think the story is revealed or spoiled. I’m a bit of a baby when it comes to my reading. This story sounds like the kind that would plague my sleep and thoughts for weeks after reading.
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  19. Sounds like a terrific book. I could swear that when I was in high school, many (many) years ago, one of his books was required reading. Just cannot recall the title.

    Robert Bruce is doing some terrific work – introducing people to valuable books.
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  20. Wow , seems it will be a great book.
    It was an excellent book review.
    After reading review , I feel very excited about this book and it seems to be a quality writing. I am always happy to read something related to our spiritual values and norms. I have also sent your post to a friend , who normally does the downloading on my kindle , she is fond of reading and I am also benefited by her reads. First time I have referred something to her.. I hope she will be convinced to check this and both of us will enjoy this book.

  21. Do you know if this book has been made into a movie? I think I would enjoy seeing it. I have not read any works by this author, but I can see the attraction.
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  22. It was made into a film. Here’s the link:-
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  23. I know Baldwin is considered a great writer, and I should put this on my to-read list. The post makes me want to discover the characters for myself.

    You ask about books in New York, and I think of the All of a Kind Family series. Last year I read The Golem and the Jinni – author Helene Wecker makes old New York come alive.
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  24. Lovely review. I’ve not yet read this book, but with such a high recommendation, it is now high on my list. Thx!
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