The ability to speak in different, authoritative voices —as fictionists, essayists, reviewers, and culture critics—is a mark of particular distinction among [End Page 156] contemporary African American women writers. Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Audre Lorde, and Margaret Walker, to name only a few, are the descendants of black women writers who—like Anna Julia Cooper, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Zora Neale Hurston—wrote across both genre and gender distinctions. In one of the first books devoted entirely to Alice Walker, Donna Haisty Winchell explores the reciprocity between this important writer's life and work. In Alice Walker (part of Twayne's United States Author Series), Winchell constructs a dialogue in each chapter that weaves together Walker's essays, poetry, and fiction. For example, chapter one ("Survival, Literal and Literary") uses the autobiographical collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, to chart Walker's early personal and artistic development through her close familial ties to her mother (Minie Lou Walker) and to her spiritual "foremother," Zora Neale Hurston.
Alice Walker's second volume of essays, Living By the Word (1988), is also an essential part of the conceptual frame Winchell uses throughout the book to contextualize Walker's poems, short fiction, and novels. The motif that gives form to Walker's life and art—like a jazz riff that keeps changing form—is the search for "wholeness": "Walker speaks of her early writing," Winchell claims, "as a means of survival, an alternative to despair. Over time, though her writing has become not only a means of averting crisis but a means of achieving health" (27). What is true for the artist is also true for her art. Although not all of Walker's fictional characters come through their ordeals "healthy and whole," Winchell stresses that "their struggle for wholeness is the stuff Walker's fictional world is made of" (28).
Wholeness is, in part, a matter of "resistance," of rebellion against an almost overwhelming array of forces—racism, misogyny, cultural and economic poverty, and dogmatic religiosity—that can produce despair and self-hatred. Winchell's book constructs a convincing dialogue out of the ways that Walker's life and art are informed by these issues. Wholeness and resistance are empowering ideas in chapters like "The Burden of Responsibility, The Flaw of Unforgiveness: The Third Life of Grange Copeland" (chapter four); "Beautiful, Whole, and Free: You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down" (chapter six); and "Harmony of the Heart and Hearth: The Temple of My Familiar" (chapter nine). The ten comparatively short chapters that make up Winchell's work provide a remarkably incisive, multi-voiced discussion of Walker's life and art. The "Notes and References" covering the later chapters are a little sparse for the advanced researcher, but the notes on the earlier chapters are informative. Winchell has, however, included a helpful "Selected Bibliography." Overall, Donna Haisty Winchell's Alice Walker is an excellent point from which to begin any serious work on one of our most gifted American writers. [End Page 157]