Book Review: “Cane” by Jean Toomer

I’m torn about this book.

There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s beautiful. I can give it full marks for that, but for some reason enough of it did not resonate inside me to leave me wanting more of it.

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The book is a collection of short stories and poetry, based around black experience both in the rural south and up North during the 1900’s to 1920’s. Every piece had a wandering, lost, sort of feeling to it, reminiscent of the author himself, who spent most of his life suspended between the worlds of white and black, due the to racism of his day. My version of the book had a fairly extensive biographical portrait of the author at the end, which helped to pinpoint the inspiration for a lot of the pieces within the collection. And though it is a collection, I have seen it called a novel. This is probably because as you’re reading you see little connections here and there, linking everything together in a sort of chain.

The longest and final piece in the collection is written in a very interesting style, a sort of mixture between prose and play. The dialogue attributions are not done with the usual, “he said” and “she said,” but like a play have the speaker’s name with a colon. All of the poetry was beautiful, and this same beautiful use of language spilled into the short stories, making them a kind of prose poetry.

As lovely as this book was, only a few of the short stories really grabbed me, and the very last and longest story was not one of them. Perhaps it was this that left me feeling a bit torn about the whole collection. It was almost like reading a really good book with a disappointing ending. I have seen many reviews online about how wonderful the final story is, and the author himself admitted in a letter that the main character in it reflects his personal experience, but I wasn’t moved by it the way I was when I read “Passing” or “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

If you’ve read it or plan to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave them in the comment section, along with any recommendations for me to add to my ever lengthening “to read” list.