Writing and researching a biography for 10 years may be a far cry from the 9 a.m. assignment, 4:30 p.m. deadlines of her days as a reporter, but Evelyn C. White’s biography Alice Walker: A Life is a remarkable effort.
White’s prose is clear and easy to read from start to finish, but the patterns she weaves are complex and require a certain attention from the reader that the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s life absolutely deserves.
Throughout the 500 pages, White adeptly contextualizes Walker’s life with both her work and the history of the South, providing relevant stories that influenced events, without wandering too far from her main timeline.
Incorporating a large amount of her poetry, readers who may not be familiar with it will find it incredibly representative of her life and whatever she was facing at the time she wrote it.
While it was Walker’s 1983 novel The Color Purple that brought her work to mainstream audiences, it also brought controversy, which was only furthered when the movie was released. In fact, the first time Walker ever crossed a picket line was to attend the premiere of the film.
Covering the other main points of her life, including her interracial marriage (illegal at the time), later revelation as a bisexual, and extensive activism. She details Walker’s college days, beginning at Spelman College and later leaving to go to Sarah Lawrence College, both all-women’s schools, and tells the moving story of her abortion (also illegal at the time) in the years before Roe v. Wade.
One of the most impressive and educational focuses of the book is Walker’s civil rights activism in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Attacked by both blacks and whites for her confrontational approach in addressing issues, White offers a balanced presentation of the controversial points of her life, giving voice to oppositional sides.
Though it may not be possible to open a chapter and get all the relevant details of that time, the reward is a rich picture of Walker, possible only through 10 years of openness between two friends and writers, and countless hours of interviews and research by the determined reporter.
Beginning with the accident that left Walker blinded in the right eye, and emotionally scarred from both her appearance and the lies told to cover her brothers’ responsibility, White opens the story of the writer and civil rights activist whose courage in her convictions has been transformative in many ways.
Using the accident as a jumping off point for Walker’s life-long commitment to truth, White pulls in her family past together with occasional glimpses of her future throughout the book.
The youngest of eight children born to a sharecropping family in Georgia, Walker has always drawn her art from her life; her most famous characters, Celie, Shug, and Mr.____, were based on real people, and her poetry mixes beautifully with the story of her life because it so often represented who she was at the time she wrote it.
Focusing her storytelling more along themes than time, White gives the reader the main points of Alice’s life without succumbing to a simple chronological order.
While it may have been tempting to start with her birth, focus on The Color Purple and classify the rest as “everything after”, White instead weaves a story as complex as Walker herself, drawing the reader into the puzzle of one person’s life through the pieces she brings together. For clarity, she also offers both a family tree and a chronology of events.
Granted Walker’s life has been rich and filled with a variety of experiences.
Choosing which to highlight is the primary task of any biographer, and the events that White chooses provide a great overview of her life and work.
At times though, there is a sense that White’s 10 year relationship with Walker causes her to occasionally skim over some areas that readers may want more details about, like her bisexuality.
White performed extensive research and first-person interviews for the biography, which took her all over the world and put her in touch with some of the most well known celebrities, evidenced by the voluminous source notes at the end.
Her meticulous attention to detail shows in the ways she ties the varied experiences of Walker together.
The book is a real page-turner, thanks to both the incredibly interesting life of Walker and the accessible writing style of White.