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Third Life of Grange Copeland

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Alice Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), is set in southern Georgia. A theme that dominates much of her writing (the survival whole of African Americans as individuals and as a race) is born within this epic story, setting the tone for Walker's entire body of work. This novel depicts the insurmountable difficulties that faced many uneducated and oppressed African Americans of the 1920s through the early 1960s–people whose hope faded and whose rage flared as each year's injustices fell upon them. Amidst the strife and struggle of life within a society dominated by racism, fear, and rage, three generations of an African American family struggle to survive.

The title character, Grange Copeland, is a sharecropper who beats his wife, Margaret, and has an extramarital affair with a prostitute named Josie. His son, Brownfield Copeland, is a child whose father abandons him and whose mother commits suicide. At fifteen, Brownfield begins a search for his father that leads him into a world of lust and forbidden sex. At the Dew Drop Inn, he finds the beds of both Josie and her daughter, Lorene, are open to him. This sex triangle is broken, however, when Brownfield falls in love and marries Josie's niece, Mem.

Unfortunately, Brownfield follows his father's footsteps into the mire of the white man's sharecropping system. Feeling defeated and trapped, he turns his rage against his wife and children. Eventually, Mem grows tired of Brownfield's abuse and the unhealthy conditions in which they live. She forces Brownfield, at gun point, to get a factory job and returns to her profession as a schoolteacher. Mem succeeds in raising the family's standard of living until her health fails and Brownfield drags her back to the rat-infested shacks she despises. She takes a second step toward change but is defeated when Brownfield, jealous of her and fearful of any future she might be able to create, kills her.

Meanwhile, Grange returns from the North, marries Josie (for her money), and buys a farm. Together they raise Ruth, Mem's youngest daughter. Unlike his son, Grange has discovered that a cycle of hopelessness can only be broken if mistakes are faced with courage and life-building sacrifices for others are made. Based upon this belief, a bond of love develops between Grange and Ruth that distances Josie (who finds comfort in Brownfield's arms). Later, Brownfield gains legal custody of Ruth. Knowing that Brownfield's only objective is to destroy the possibility of wholeness within the child, Grange stops him. As the novel ends, Grange is hunted and killed for the murder of his only son.

This novel was not received with thunderous applause. Critics objected to the savage-like characterization of Brownfield. But like many African American women writers of the 1970s, Walker's purpose in telling this story is not to pick the sores of the African American male image. Her objective is to remove the blinders from the eyes of history so that the “real” stories of African American women's strengths and weaknesses can reveal themselves.


Subjects: Literature

Reference entries

Alice Walker (b. 1944) American writer and critic