Sunday, February 1, 2015

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I have tried to read Beloved numerous times over the years, but have always gotten bogged down very early on. So I decided to listen to it and feel a sense of triumph for getting to the end of what is a challenging work.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, a formerly enslaved African American woman living in the Cincinnati area in the 1870s. Sethe and her husband Halle had a plan to escape slavery but, when the night came to flee, Halle had disappeared. Sethe sent her three children ahead to her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs (whose freedom had been purchased by  Halle) and waited for Halle to return. When he did not reappear and no one knew what had happened to him (or was not willing to tell him), she left on her own. She gave birth to her fourth child en route, but eventually made it to Baby Suggs's house at 124 Bluestone Road.

By the time we meet Sethe 17 years later, she and the baby she gave birth to while fleeing, her daughter Denver, are alone in the house except for the ghost of a baby, presumably the baby of the daughter who died as a toddler. Baby Suggs has also died, and Sethe's two sons have taken off. Then Paul D, a man Sethe knew when they were both enslaved in Kentucky, arrives; he and Sethe become lovers and he manages to scare the ghost away from 124. Paul convinces Denver to leave the house, something she rarely does, and happier days seem to be ahead. But then a young woman named Beloved turns up at the house. Denver immediately believes Beloved is her sister returned from the dead and treasures her presence. That presence is not entirely benevolent, however, as Beloved manages to drive Paul away and seems to be slowly sucking the life out of Sethe.

Morrison intersperses the Ohio story with Sethe's "rememories" of life as a slave, providing context for what is happening following the Civil War. About halfway through the book, a devastating revelation changes the reader's understanding of the events of Sethe's life and the ways in which the black and white communities respond to her. As the dynamic in the household continues to deteriorate, the book builds to an ending that reveals much about the resilience of community and family.

I can't say that I loved Beloved, but I think it is a worthwhile struggle, both as a reading experience and as an important milestone in African American literature. The themes Morrison explores--the trauma of slavery and its long-term effects, the customs and values of the free African American community, the ways in which mothers and children see sacrifice--are crucial to American history, and the uniquely African American voice she creates(without resorting to dialect) is an amazing achievement. I should also note that the audio version of the book was read by Morrison herself; while many listeners have critiqued her reading as dull and monotonic, I enjoyed it (and, of course, I dislike what I call overacting in audio books, so a low-key delivery works for me).

Favorite passage:
Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. If they could not see it, they would not have it.

, , , there was no accounting for the way that simple joy could shake you.

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