Alice Walker's new book is much like "The Color Purple." Yet at the same time, it is so different from "Purple," her Pulitzer-winning novel.
If it were funny, which it isn't, "By the Light of My Father's Smile" would be a parody of "The Color Purple."Both are stories of young women growing up alienated from their angry fathers. Both are about the supernatural, the healing power of heaven - and about the healing power of earthly, physical love. Both have themes of lesbian love, as well. "By the Light of My Father's Smile" flirts with incest. Incest was a definite and disgust-provoking theme in "The Color Purple."
"The Color Purple," begins with anguished letters, written to God by a 14-year-old girl whose daddy is abusing her. "By the Light of My Father's Smile," begins with a father, newly dead, now an angel, watching his daughters live their lives and wanting to help them.
He sees, now, what he did wrong. He didn't love them for who they were. He loved them for who he wanted them to be. When they were teenagers, he tried to stifle their emerging sexuality. Now he watches his daughters making love - to women and to men - and he describes for the reader what he sees.
The angel hovers. He notes that no one seems to miss him. "She felt (not sad at her father's death but) rather as if something heavy and dark, something she could never explain, had rolled away, off her soul. Shameless, curious, forsaken somehow, I watched her and the Greek husband, late into the night, make love."
Does his peeping bother the reader? Yes. We want to see that the voyeurism is somehow useful, that this intrusive angel is actually helping his daughters have healthier lives. Should this peeping bother the reader? No, the author tells us.
One of the characters is a Mundo Indian, named Manuelito, who embodies Nature and Truth and Love. Manuelito says it is good for parents to celebrate their children's sexuality, that is the tribal way, the way that has been stifled by the Christian church. We need to return to simple, beautiful ways, Manuelito/Walker tells us. And we eventually do, Walker says, because we die.
What Walker has done in her latest book is to take "The Color Purple" and twist it, kink it and present it again. The reader might not like the new version so well as the old but will be forced to admit, while reading "By the Light of My Father's Smile," that Walker's writing grows ever more lovely. She is polished, now.
In her latest book, Walker writes from various perspectives. She tells part of the story from the daughter's view. As a little girl, the daughter felt close to both her parents. She charts the change in her relationship with her father to the time the family moved to Mexico, just before she entered puberty.
Walker, as the daughter, writes, "Moving to Mexico was, as far as my relationship with my father was concerned, a falling away from the home in myself that my father himself represented. Who was this man, masquerading as a priest? Who was this man, suddenly fixated on the evil in me? I did not know. Not knowing, I was always afraid.
"Besides, if my father could not remember the beginning of our peculiar journey, how could I ask him to start over? I dreamed about our years in Mexico all the time."