Monday, June 28, 2010

Book #35 - Beloved (Toni Morrison)

Tonight I have forsaken my traditional fine American whiskey, and have chosen to blog with a martini in one hand. I can think of nothing more inappropriate to drink while blogging about Toni Morrison's "Beloved". When one thinks of a martini, one thinks of sophistication, maybe the roaring 20's, of elegant bars, and FDR and flappers. That is so not the world of "Beloved". At all.

Where do I start with this one? About 20 years ago, I went through a period where I read a lot of books by black women authors. I was thinking that I should read some books that would let me see the world through eyes that gave a distinctly different viewpoint from my own, and I knew from growing up in suburban Ohio that I definitely was not a black woman. So I read books by Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, Terry McMillan, and one by Toni Morrisson. My favorite book off all the ones I read by these authors was Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God"...that book was brilliant, and if you haven't read it, by all means you should do so. I also liked "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker (which I read before it became a Steven Spielberg blockbuster film), although I felt the ending was wrapped up a bit too neatly and happily. The Toni Morrison book I read was "Sula" and frankly it didn't really stick with me. I'd heard "Beloved" was a good book, but I'm not sure if I was expecting all that much.

So I read it and wow, this is one helluva book. "Beloved" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 (it was published in 1987) and Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In May 2006, the New York Times named "Beloved" as the best American novel to be published in the previous 25 years. That's a pretty good track record. And reading the novel, even through the haze of a martini or three, I can see what all the hype is about. It's complex, it's thought-provoking, and it's incredibly moving. Plus the writing itself is great. I cried at the end, although that's not saying much since I also cried at the end of the movie "You've Got Mail".

The book is very loosely based on the life of Margaret Garner. Margaret was a slave from Kentucky who fled north to Ohio in 1856 along with her husband and four children. However, slave catchers caught up with them in Cincinnati and surrounded the house they were hiding in. Margaret then killed her two year old daughter with a knife rather than see her returned to slavery. She would have killed her other children and herself as well, but the posse caught her before she could carry this out. In "Beloved", the main character is Sethe, a former slave from Kentucky who escaped to Cincinnati, and kills her infant daughter Beloved when their former master rides into town, corners them, and prepares to take them back to slavery. In Sethe's case, she is jailed for murder, and is eventually released (in real life, Margaret Garner was taken back to slavery). The story is told in flashbacks, and veers back and forth between character's memories and the present. At first this was a bit confusing, but it rapidly becomes clear.

Sethe lives in a house with her daughter Denver (her other two surviving sons fled and never returned, fearing that their mother would one day kill them, as they had witnessed her kill her infant daughter). When the novel opens, the house is haunted, with what is believed to be the ghost of the murdered child. Eventually a 20-year old woman appears on the porch and comes to live in the house, and we quickly realize that this is probably the ghost of Beloved (the characters realize this too). I could go on and summarize the plot, but I hate to spoil the book for those who might not have read it already, because it's a great book and I heartily recommend it. But I think it's worthwhile to tell why I think it's a great book, and I can do that without summarizing the plot (although the plot itself is good, as is the writing).

The thing that I really loved about the book is that it really made me think about slavery and it's effects in a whole new light. I mean, everyone knows that slavery was terrible and degrading and inhuman and horrible...that seems to be commonly accepted by everyone in this day and age (as opposed to the mid-1800s when the novel takes place). But the novel, in dealing with a group of black people who escaped from slavery and are living across the river from a former slave state just after the Civil War, really gets into the mind of these characters and shows the reader how damaged they are from having to endured slavery, even long after they are freed from it. In today's world, we know so much more about psychology and things like post traumatic stress. It's insightful to take this knowledge and look at the characters in that regard. Slavery left people horribly damaged, both black and white, and Morrison seems to be making the case that we need to think about this and remember this, and look at ourselves even in today's world at the legacy of this horror, because it's effects still decidedly linger.

In "Beloved" the whites are not totally and all bad, and the blacks are not totally innocent victims and only good. Life is not like that and the book is not like that. It's a white girl who helps Sethe deliver her baby while she is escaping from slavery, and it's a white man who helps prevent Sethe from being hanged after she is found guilty of murdering her child (he also employed Sethe's mother-in-law and daughter). In slavery Sethe has a "good" master, who treats the slaves with respect, listens to their opinions, and lets them carry guns. However after he dies the new master is mean and cruel, and it's from him that Sethe escapes. Likewise, while there are black characters who help Sethe, and who love Sethe, it is also the black community who is partly responsible for the tragedy, because they fail to warn Sethe that her old master has come to town and is hunting her down (they do not warn her because they felt that she and her mother-in-law, who was a lay preacher, were getting to be too proud). The world is full of good and bad people, of all sexes and races. But a horrifically dysfunctional institution like slavery just warps and magnifies everything, so that things like murdering one's own child can become act of love. The aftermath of this for Sethe, as it would be for anyone, is brutal and damaging. And of course it doesn't help matters if the dead baby's ghost comes back to haunt you. In today's society, we could put Sethe on Wellbutrin and get her into extensive therapy to help get her over the ravages of her past traumas. But those options were not available then. Plus, I'm not sure you could find a therapist today who specializes in treating former slaves.

Anyway I feel like I'm rambling a bit, and I blame the martini. But my head is clear enough to know that this is a great book and beautifully written, full of poetry and symbolism and wisdom, and it deserves its acclaim. Yeah, it's hard to read at points, but that's how life can be sometimes, and besides the ending is surprisingly optimistic. So have a martini and a Paxil and go for it!