Meridian has a boyfriend, and must drop out of school when she becomes pregnant at 15. She and her boyfriend marry, but it all happens to Meridian as if in a dream. It does not seem she is meant for this life. Her conventional husband moves on to greener pastures quickly. Meridian hears that volunteers are needed for a voter registration drive to begin in a house near her own. She sees lots of young people milling around the house, and the next day finds that it has been firebombed. “And so it was that one day in the middle of April in 1960, Meridian Hill became aware of the past and present of the larger world.” She is just 17.
Meridian volunteers and joins in the marches, sit-ins and vigils that make up the Movement. She gives her son away with a light heart, believing she has saved his young life, but it takes her a long time to tell her mother, a deeply Christian woman.
In the Movement, Meridian meets Truman Held and falls in love with him. She is also given a scholarship to Saxon College as her intellect is recognized. The women at Saxon are taught to be young ladies, but many of them go out and demonstrate, sometimes end up in jail. Meridian continues to see Truman, who is a “conquering prince,” vain and somewhat pretentious. Instead of returning Meridian’s love, Truman goes out with the white exchange students at college. When Meridian asks him what he sees in them, he tells her, “The read The New York Times.”
When Meridian does sleep with Truman finally, she becomes pregnant and has an abortion. Truman, who has gone back to Lynne, a white student, never knows. When he finally does come back to Meridian, she is angry. “It’s over,” she tells him.
At graduation, Meridian becomes ill, fainting and having blue-black spells. She lies sick for a month, thinking always of her mother and feeling guilty about how overburdened she was. She realizes “her mother’s and her grandmother’s extreme purity of life was compelled by necessity. They had not lived in an age of choice.” Finally a friend of her mother’s whispers to Meridian, “I forgive you,” and Meridian gets better.
After graduation, Meridian lives briefly in New York. Truman has married Lynne and they have a daughter, though they are separated. This daughter dies at six, and Meridian tries to comfort both of them. She goes back and forth from Truman’s light, bright artist studio where there are paintings of Meridian on every wall to Lynne’s dark basement apartment in the Village. Lynne is angry and bitter about her experiences, though she was happiest in the Movement in the South. Meridian, courteous and quiet, cannot listen to Lynne’s vituperation.
Meridian herself is living in small farming towns in Georgia. She is able, through her own courage and ambivalence, to perform extraordinary acts, though afterwards she falls into a fit and can’t move. For instance, in one small town where the swimming pool is closed after it was required to be integrated, a small boy drowns playing in a drainage ditch. Meridian, followed by townspeople, carries his bloated body into the mayor’s office and puts it on his desk. The drainage ditch is filled in. In return for her work, the little towns support Meridian, giving her a place to live and food. She continues to visit people, getting them to register to vote. Truman often visits her.
In 1968, Meridian is at Martin Luther King’s funeral. She has continued to ask herself the question she was asked as the Movement became increasingly militant: could you kill for the revolution? Meridian does not think she could. Visiting churches, Meridian finds they have changed. She had thought of them as reactionary, but now she fins them places of respect and pride. She loves the old songs, and decides her place is not among the “real revolutionaries,” but to come forward with the songs they need to hear.
Having solved some of her questions, Meridian grows stronger. Though Truman wants to go back to their early love, Meridian tells him she has set him free. Resolute, owning nothing, she packs to move to another town. “Your ambivalence will always be deplored by people who consider themselves revolutionists, and your unorthodox behavior will cause traditionalists to gnash their teeth,” Truman tells her. When she leaves, he wonderes “if Meridian knew that the sentence of bearing the conflict in her own soul which she had imposed on herself – and lived through – must now be borne in terror by all the rest of them.”
Alice Walker has said she was thinking of Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson when writing the book. Ruby Doris was a powerful force in the Civil Rights Movement who died at age 25, having given all of herself to the fight. Many of the experiences depicted in the book are surely Alice Walker’s own and the questions and resolutions she describes show her own growth under fire.