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Beloved by Toni Morrison

27 Jul

OK, so per usual, I’m both behind the times and breaking my own rules. But Toni Morrison is, quite frankly, worth breaking the rules for. You may have heard her name in the news this spring when Snooki was paid more money to speak at Rutgers University than her (Morrison was the graduation speaker. Can you imagine Snooki trying to give advice to anyone?). People were outraged, and rightly so, given that her works are incredibly well-written, powerful, and unforgettable, and none more so than Beloved. Yes, it’s a little more recent than most books I profile, but still. I profile it with good reason.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Published: 1987

Quick Read?: The action is rather slow, and rather creepy. It’s worth slowing down just a little bit to catch all of the beautiful use of language, and all of the subtlety.

Difficulty: Not very, though it does test what you can and cannot believe.

Synopsis: Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a woman who fled slavery, and her family in her haunted home in Ohio several years after the war. When she is visited by Paul D, also a former slave at the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky where they both worked, he tries to help them move on and more forward with their lives. As they all begin to move on, the “ghost” of Sethe’s daughter, Beloved, comes to stay in their house. Sethe’s living daughter Denver realizes the long dead baby has come back, yet Sethe finds herself entranced by this mysterious, terrifying stranger’s presence. As Beloved seduces her way into their household (literally and figuratively), she begins to demand more and more of Sethe, and finally revealing the dark, dark secret in Sethe’s past when she fled her master long ago. It is only with the help of the community around Sethe can be saved, and in turn be redeemed.

What makes this book awesome? If you love historical fiction, or history, or ghost stories, this one is for you. It’s literary, but very much grounded in real stories of slaves escaping their masters, and the hell that could come upon them if they were caught (The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that owners could track down their slaves in free states and bring them back, often torturing or killing them in the process). The plot also reflects the struggles that freed slaves after the Civil War faced while trying to move forward–how does one forget the past, and should one ought to? How does one move forward when so many you have known have not? These themes are timeless, especially considering the enormous racial struggles we still face in this country today.

Also, while most postmodern literature can be alienating and unsettling by nature, Morrison does a wonderful job of both bringing the reader into the folklore, history, and mindset of the characters’ world, but also keeping enough distance to build suspense and horror. This combination is both heartwrenching and compelling, and makes Beloved hard to put down.

The ever wonderful and groundbreaking Toni Morrison. If you can't tell, I do worship this woman.

Some neat-o facts:

  • Beloved is based off the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave woman who killed her children rather than have them be recaptured by their master. She had no regrets, saying they were better off dead than enslaved. Morrison later wrote an operetta based off of Garner’s life.
  • Morrison was the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • The book is dedicated to the estimated 60 million slaves killed in the African slave trade, though many estimates have placed the number as being much higher.
  • “Toni Morrison” is her pen name: her real name is Chloe Anthony Wofford, but she used the nickname “Toni” in college since people pronounced her name wrong.
If you like this, try: The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, or Sula by Morrison; The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner; Billy Budd by Herman Melville; Black Feminist criticism by bell hooks (no capitals–she prefers her name spelled that way).
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