Nobel Prize winner offers a new redemption story
by Rob Neufeld
Toni Morrison, in her new novel, “Home,” again charts and finds redemption within the African American experience of horror. This time, she shines a light on the era of returning Korean War vets, segregation, and eugenics.
Morrison, America’s only living Nobel-Prize-in-Literature-winner, shifts between the oral history narration of Frank Money, a war vet from Georgia, and the longer parts, third-person tellings, which allow Morrison to enter the minds of other characters.
The book is the subject of Book Discussion X, Sept. 13 at Accent for Books.
“They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood,” the novel begins, creating what seems like a magical fantasy out of a glimpse of horse creatures reached by two children crawling through a burrow.
Frank had been a boy, roaming the fields with his younger sister, Cee, whom he protected. Coming back from the burrow, they encountered another vision.
“We could not see the faces of the men doing the burying, only their trousers,” Frank relates, “but we saw the edge of a spade drive the jerking foot down to join the rest of itself.”
The answer to this whodunit comes much later in the book. It’s a forgotten trauma, and gains power as a symbol.
It also signals the kind of ride that lies ahead. The order of events will follow the blooming of Frank’s consciousness.
“Since you’re set on telling my story,” Frank tells a silent interviewer at the end of the first chapter, “know this: I really forgot about the burial. I only remembered the horses.”
Chapter Two is the long chapter, hitching onto Frank’s life after he’s been wandering around drunk, tormented by nightmares and mental illness, for a year after his return from Korea.
He’s also straightened out, soothed by a girlfriend he loves; and left her, beckoned home to Georgia by a letter saying his sister was in deathly trouble.
“Breathing,” this chapter begins. “How to do it so no one would know he was awake.”
The disorientation of the horse chapter continues in a new setting: a psych ward in Maine in which Frank has been imprisoned after what he could only guess had been a violent or crazy episode.
His subsequent odyssey opens the door to us learning about his family. His parents had been refugees from a forced eviction of an African American community in Texas when Frank had been four.
The family moved into the Lotus, Georgia home of Lenore, Frank’s money-obsessed, mean step-grandmother, who had married Frank’s grandfather, Salem Money, a do-nothing. Lenore will get her own chapter later on.
Morrison’s stories are weavings. Her characters have true voices; and her novels include mundane moments and occasional digressions. Yet, everything is set within a mythology with vivid colors and bold outlines.
“Lenore was the wicked witch,” Morrison writes, telling about the Lotus period. “Frank and Cee, like some forgotten Hansel and Gretel, locked hands as they navigated the silence and tried to imagine the future.”
This side of supernatural
The term “magical realism,” applied initially to South American literature in the wake of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and adopted by critics to praise a wide range of modern writers using folk techniques, describes a very liberal usage of fantasy in real life situations.
Morrison’s magical realism keeps its feet firmly placed in psychology— except, in the case of “Home,” for a small man in a zoot suit whose apparition visits both Frank and Cee. That involves a respect for cultural inheritance.
Morrison had walked the natural-supernatural borderland memorably in her 1987 novel, “Beloved,” in which an escaped slave woman is visited by the grown ghost of the infant daughter she had had to murder in order to escape detection and insure the survival of at least her son.
In her 1977 novel, “Song of Solomon,” folklore takes an upper hand. Its hero’s odyssey from the rust-belt north to the rural South incorporates the tale, “The People Could Fly.”
The man in the zoot suit in “Home” recalls Morrison’s 1992 novel, “Jazz,” a Frankie and Johnny story set in 1920s Harlem.
“Jazz” was as experimental in its format as “Beloved.” Whereas “Beloved” broke into ghost-girl stream-of-consciousness, “Jazz” presented jazz-like improvisations. “Home” is easier to follow than both, and contains its whole story within 150 pages.
“Beloved,” “Jazz,” and Morrison’s 1997 novel, “Paradise,” are considered a kind of trilogy. Really, all her work comes together as a chronicle with a solution.
The chronicle reveals slavery in all its forms—North and South; colonial and modern; institutional and interpersonal.
The solution involves return to a traditional, matriarchal village.
A neighbor woman who sits with a convalescent Cee at one point in the novel, talks with her about the former negative forces in Cee’s life.
“Don’t let Lenore or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no devil doctor decide who you are,” the woman says. “That’s slavery. Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.”
Morrison’s cast of cared-about characters is large, and she is as dedicated to the picturing of reconstituted men as much as women.
“This feeling of safety and goodwill,” Frank acknowledges as he returns home, “was exaggerated, but savoring it was real.”
This is what a broken man would say as he releases his nightmare reality. The path to healing, in Morrison’s novels, requires lullabies and fairy tales, concocted by community out of love.
For general audiences, there’s also the benefit of considering the extent and depth of African American hardship, revealed recently in the news with statistics comparing the fates of black and white middle-class individuals.
Home by Toni Morrison (Knopf hardcover, 2012, 153 pages, $24)
“Home” by Toni Morrison is the subject of a discussion by Book Discussion X at Accent on Books, 854 Merrimon Ave., 7 p.m., Thurs., Sept. 13 (252-6255). To learn about other book discussions in the region, visit The Read on WNC at TheReadonWNC.ning.com.