Muttsy by Zora Neale Hurston, 1926
The magic trick:
Using the words and actions of several characters to paint an absolutely vivid picture of 1920s Harlem
You step away from this story feeling like you can smell 1926 Harlem on your fingertips. Hurston’s portrait is that vivid.
Interestingly, she doesn’t put you in that world with a whole ton of descriptive language. She does it with the characters. It’s the way they talk – the slang and the attitudes. It’s in their actions – the men chasing after the new girl and Ma Turner crying into her liquor. But mostly it’s in the morality shaped through both those words and actions. This is not a kind world. It’s not a good world. It’s an ugly world of sin and selfishness and desperation. Yet there is a certain humor to all of it, too. It’s one of the most vibrant story settings I have ever seen brought to life in words. And that’s quite a trick on Hurston’s part.
“Come on in, honey, a lil’ toddy ain’t gointer hurt nobody. Everybody know me, ah wouldn’t touch a hair on yo’ head. Come on in, dearie, all the’ men wants tuh meethcer.”
Pinkie smelt the liquor on Ma’s breath and felt contaminated at her touch. She wished herself back home again even with the ill treatment and squalor. She thought of the three dollars she had secreted in her shoe – she had been warned against pickpckets – and flight but where? Nowhere. For there was no home to which she could return, nor any place else she knew of. But when she got a job, she’d scrape herself clear of people who took toddies.
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