In Love and Trouble contains thirteen haunting stories about the inner lives of black women in which Alice Walker sets out to undermine black female literary stereotypes. It’s a powerful and, at times, horrifying collection with persistent themes of cruelty, betrayal, mutilation, vengeance and death.
‘Really, Doesn’t Crime Pay?’ tells the story of an aspiring female writer who goes mad after being betrayed by the male lover who steals her work and publishes it under his own name. The stolen story, which is about a woman who loses her leg in an accident caused by her neglectful husband and who then hangs herself, seems to be a metaphor for the mutilation and destruction of black female creativity within a racist, patriarchal world.
‘Her Sweet Jerome’ is a horrible story about a working-class black woman who marries a teacher. He neglects her and she becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the ‘other woman’, only to discover that he hasn’t betrayed her for a woman at all, but rather for a revolutionary politics that she doesn’t understand. So she burns his books and sets fire to herself in the process in an ending symbolic of the self-immolation that was her devotion to a cruel and arrogant man.
One of the most horrific, and yet poetic stories, is ‘The Child who Favoured Daughter’, in which a father mutilates his daughter when he finds out that she has a white lover. The ending is going to stay with me for a long time.
‘The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff’ (based on Alice Walker’s mother’s experiences during the depression), is a tremendous story about an old black woman who attempts to use voodoo to get revenge on the white woman whose mean refusal to give her food stamps resulted in the deaths of her children. The story makes the point that guilt itself is the real curse on the white woman; it’s the guilt that makes the voodoo work.
In ‘Strong Horse Tea’, a desperate woman with a dying child is forced to fall back on the folk medicine she’s rejected when she realises that her requests for a doctor have gone ignored. And in ‘The Flowers’ a little girl loses her innocence when she comes across the bones of a lynched man, stepping (in a sickening moment) ‘smack into his eyes’.
I think my favourite story is ‘Everyday Use’. A poor female sharecropper has two adult daughters. The oldest has left home, gone to university, got involved in the civil rights movement, visited Africa and changed her name. The youngest has been terribly scarred (more mutilation) both physically and psychologically by a fire that burnt down their house when she was a child. One day, the older sister comes to visit with her smart boyfriend and demands two handmade family quilts that the mother had been saving for her younger daughter’s marriage. The older sister argues that the younger girl shouldn’t have them because she’ll only put them to ‘everyday use’ when they should really be displayed on a wall. The mother finally stands up to her daughter and insists on giving the quilts to the younger one — an action that heals their damaged relationship. The two daughters are doubles and the story can be interpreted in various ways. Is the burned, scarred girl the damaged part of the self that’s been left behind by the educated, fashionable sister? Do the quilts represent the heritage that woman like the older sister (who got out and got educated) must leave behind? Perhaps the loss of the ‘quilts’ is the price of getting out? It’s interesting to note that Walker herself was scarred in a childhood accident and felt that she was hideously ugly, but that she also got out, got an education and became involved in feminism and civil rights. In a sense, I think that she’s both women in this story and seems to be making peace with the scared, scarred, shy part of herself.
After so much intense, painful stuff, the collection ends with a gentle, moving story called ‘To Hell with Dying’ about a woman’s sense of responsibility for Mr Sweet, the old drunken neighbour who played with her as a child. She had the job of reviving him whenever he took it upon himself to die, but her magic can’t work forever.
It’s well worth reading this collection alongside Walker’s non-fiction book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1984) where she gives a lot of background to these stories in her essays about her upbringing as the daughter of poor sharecropping farmers, the suppression of black female creativity, the need for black women writers to challenge myths and stereotypes, and the writers that influenced her work — Flannery O’ Connor, Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston in particular.