Another book from the frequently challenged/banned list and it is absolutely brutal. While the present day of the novel is clearly post Civil War the story fills in through sojourns into the past and this includes before the war. The main character, Sethe, says goodbye to these three little beings, the youngest being less than a year old and later known as “Beloved”, moments before she is caught by her master. A brutal whipping is her punishment and something she endures before she walks and runs her way to freedom; a search for her children at her mother in law’s house pushing her to survive and move even during the last days of pregnancy.
But the story of Beloved really begins further than this; a time when Beloved is already dead and haunting her mother, grandmother, and one remaining sibling. Her brothers left, her father was never found, and here her mother works to feed the ailing grandmother and a sister who didn’t want to leave the property. She never knew slavery as her mother or father knew it, was less than a year old at the time of her murder, and her spirit is angry, restless only to become more so when an old friend of her mother’s comes to stay. A man named Paul D, one of the boys from Sweet Home (the old plantation Sethe escaped from), happens upon her and scares the tantrum throwing poltergeist from the house. The love, the attention that Beloved feels she’s entitled to is then given over to the man and that one sibling, Denver.
Each character, including the deceased matriarch Grandma Baby Suggs, is fleshed out through “rememories”. A flip back in time to understand what happened on Sweet Home to result in so many attempting to escape and what happened to those who didn’t. Steps back and forth through these lives flesh out the story of what happened to Beloved, her father, her mother, and later how things came to be for Denver and Paul D. It is as horrifying as one would expect and more so than any person besides a scholar would ever think of.
While discussing this with the friend who loaned this to me I was able to clarify my feelings on this book and so offer you some of the tidbits from that digital conversation: “The horrors were too great, the tragedies too belabored, and not anywhere was there even a sign of hope or want that would leave me feeling grateful for the ending. I think this is what happens when you never show characters’ positive motivations or even their love. Everything is a sickness which then makes each decision made be in response to the symptoms of that. Even as a tale of survival it’s somehow lacking. For life to matter to the reader then it needs to matter to the character. Or at least someone’s life needs to matter to the character.”
The prose is artful and brilliant as is noted in this passage about Paul D’s experience as a prisoner in Georgia:
They chain-danced over the fields, through the woods to a trail that ened in the astonishing beauty of feldspar, and there Paul D’s hands disobeyed the furious rippling of his blood and paid attention. With a sledge hammer in his hands and Hi Man’s lead, the men got through. They sang it out and beat it up, garbling the words so they could not be understood; tricking the words so their syllables yielded up other meanings. They sang the women they knew; the children they had been; the animals they had tamed themselves or seen others tame. They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.
And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot mealcake among the pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr. Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt whom folks called Life for leading them on.
It’s the best written, worst book I’ve ever read. Worth reading? For the cultural information and the history alone I think it is. I must admit, however, if it weren’t for this challenge I would not have finished it and I’m quite grateful I did. Jury’s still out as to whether or not I’ll read another of Morrison’s works as the beautiful telling is no real substitute for the showing that could have made this read powerful. I wanted to loathe the slave owner who inflicted so much cruelty, to love Sethe’s children (or at least fear for them and her), for me to be grief stricken over the horrors the main cast of characters suffered, and I never did. For all that, Morrison demonstrates that language in the right hands can be art even if it is sometimes a cold and cerebral one.