A far happier fate awaits 8-year-old Iris in “Drenched in Light,” a story that marked Hurston’s first major publication. Iris is an imaginative and precocious child who dances around wearing a red tablecloth while rejecting the femininity her grandmother attempts to foist upon her. Despite the harsh punishment Iris receives for her antics, the resourceful little girl finds a way to forge her own future. One wonders whether John and Iris reflect the restlessness of a young Hurston growing up in Eatonville while longing for New York.
Hurston’s prose is exuberant and playful, but there are dark notes in her stories, too. Revenge is a theme she deftly executes through the use of otherworldly spirits or town folk capable of casting “conjures” or curses. In “Spunk,” cocky Spunk Banks, who isn’t “skeered of nothin’ on God’s green footstool,” struts around Eatonville with Joe Kanty’s wife on his arm. When Joe challenges Spunk to a dual, their confrontation leads to Joe’s death. But Joe returns to exact revenge from beyond the grave.
The radiant “Black Death,” a story that was unpublished in Hurston’s lifetime, also touches on the supernatural. In it, Old Man Morgan, a hoodoo man renowned for his conjures in Eatonville, can kill people without leaving his house or seeing his victim. Mrs. Boger, whose daughter Docia was jilted by Beau Diddely, hires Old Man Morgan to teach Beau a lesson. Beau’s unusual end would come to be known as Morgan’s “masterpiece.”
The sweetest revenge story in “Hitting a Straight Lick” doesn’t involve spirits or magic but a woman named Delia Jones whose husband, Sykes, beats her and subjects her to cruel pranks. The title, “Sweat,” refers to Delia’s backbreaking work of washing white people’s clothes to put food on their table and pay for their home. “Her tears, her sweat, her blood. She had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh.”
Fifteen years into their marriage, she puts her foot down. “Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her.” Hurston pens a deeply satisfying ending reminiscent of the kind of African folktales she collected throughout her career.
A familial love triangle plagues the protagonist in “Under the Bridge.” Fifty-eight-year-old Luke Mimms takes great pride in marrying the “radiating” Vangie, who is about the same age as his adult son, Artie. After a rough beginning, Vangie and Artie become jovial companions. But Luke’s relief at their newfound harmony turns to jealousy over the undeniable romantic chemistry between them. “The bitterness of life struck him afresh. He blamed them. He didn’t. Poor creatures! Designing devils!” Be careful what you wish for is a moral that Hurston artfully weaves throughout the collection.
“Hitting a Straight Lick” may mark one of the last of Hurston’s literary works brought to full-length book form. One hopes, though, that more of her archived words will find their way into a future published volume. Miracles do happen.
‘Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick’
By Zora Neale Hurston
304 pages, $25.99