‘Dearly Beloved’ is what she wanted on the headstone. But ‘Beloved’ is all she got. The price of which was ten minutes of sex with the engraver. Later she thought she might have got ‘Dearly’ too or maybe the entire preaching for twenty minutes or forty. But she managed to get what mattered to most. She was ‘Beloved’ whether anyone one believed it or not.
Toni Morrison is the voice of African-American literature. Beloved won her Pulitzer and when you read the book you are not surprised at all. A genius by her own right Toni Morrison shows the complexity of being a Black where whitefolks are the only bad luck.
There are several editions published and therefore several cover pages. I picked up a copy from ‘Vintage’ publications. The cover page is simple yet beautiful. The font and graphics compliment each other. But the inside is more beautiful than the cover. The font inside is simple and readable, unlike the small ones that classics are given by default. This physical copy is definitely for keeps.
There are several voices in the book. But primarily there is Sethe who is a runaway black. She spends her six years in ‘Sweet Home’. She ‘marries’ and bears three children, pregnant with another when she decides to run away from the camp. Sethe is a beautiful, complex character. She is continually trying to move forward but the ghosts of past catch up with her.
Her daughter ‘Denver’ is a timid, dim-witted eighteen-year-old while when they are living in Cincinnati. Denver has found her company in her dead sister; watching her, caring for her and waiting for her father to come and rescue them.
There are several other characters who make the book whole. Paul D chases the spirit of the baby away until it finds its way back to 124. Stamp Paid is a holy man who saved Denver when she needed saving.
Baby Suggs is the grandmother who holds sermons in the clearing. Seeing each of her children being taken away, whom she bore with six different men, she has been granted ‘freedom’. Her son bought it with his own life slaving away. Baby Suggs is hungry for colors as she has seen enough whites.
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.
And this is how the book opens. Gripping right from the first sentence.
Toni Morrison weaves a story full of spirit, longing, and xenophobia. It is towards the end of the civil war when Sethe fleas from ‘Sweat Home’ and comes to her mother in law in Cincinnati. She longs for her husband who promised her he will accompany her but got lost somewhere. But for the child who was still in her womb, she fights her fate and fleas alone. She is beaten up, raped, and almost dead when she reached the boat. A white girl named Denver brings her back to life and delivers Sethe’s baby on the boat. And while she is leaving them to go to Boston for velvet she leaves a message about the hurt that is caused when something comes back to life.
Sethe resolves to not let her children face anything that she went through and in an attempt to keep her promise she kills one of her daughters. She was ‘Beloved’ but she didn’t believe it.
The baby is killed and buried and the price for the burial is paid. But Sethe could never make the baby believe in the love she possesses for her. The thick love that let her kill the baby than push her away into slavery.
The baby is ever present in the house making its presence felt and chasing the inhabitants away. Sethe is aware of the presence, even encourages it.
Until Paul D enters the house and chases the ghost away.
Denver, the white girl, brings Beloved to life on the boat. It makes Denver, surviving daughter of Sethe, responsible for Beloved’s rebirth. The water breaks and Beloved becomes a part of their lives now.
Beloved comes into human form and is closer to her mother than she ever was.
It is essentially a ghost story. A spirit. A spirit of being and the ghost of past. And yes, when something comes back to life, it does hurt.
Toni Morrison has weaved a beautiful story of those who were the commodity to be bought, sold and exchanged in their own voice. The history of blacks by those who lived it. It delves into the meaning of literacy to poor. Anything that they wrote will never be sufficient to narrate what they went through. The close comparison of blacks with animal kingdom and struggle for a different identity.
Morrison has also played out a balancing act by not making all the blacks good and whites evil. Her characters such as the white girl Amy, confirms that the cushiony seat is reserved for the top crop white and for the poor it didn’t make a difference whether they were black or white.
The beginning questions the end. The love she had for Beloved and the people she called her own were maybe not such.
It is the story of a ghost, slavery in its raw form and some gory abuse; and Toni Morrison has the best prose for it. Toni Morrison has a beautiful voice not just for the story of blacks but also the supernatural element in the book. The prose never seems unbelievable.
The lyrical poetry-like writing connects the pieces of the story together. The transition in the psychology of the characters is dream-like. Language is power in this book.
The cover page is beautiful. The characters are deep and well told about. The content is like a distant haunting dream. The language keeps up with the story to bring the rawness out.
As is the case with all the classics, some of the sentences may take more than once to understand.
This is definitely one of the best classics I have read.
Whom do I recommend this to
This one is for those who like to read a story and keep it with them forever.
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.
If a Negro got legs he ought to use them. Sit down too long, somebody will figure out a way to tie them up.
‘It’s gonna hurt, now,’said Amy. ‘Anything dead coming back to life hurts.’
The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little but; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke it’s back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.
‘A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every goddamn minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside.’
‘There is not bad luck in the world but whitefolks.’