Toni Morrison


"The Song of Solomon"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 11, 2008)

"Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home."

Filled with imagery and symbolism from the Bible, this landmark novel also draws on the epic tradition, tracing the roots of four generations of an African-American family as they fight a series of battles--against the legacy of slavery and racism, the loss of cultural values and roots, the trauma of injustice, and the self-centeredness which results from economic success. For all its elegance of development and seriousness of purpose, however, this 1977 novel by Toni Morrison is decidedly earthy, filled with unusual characters and exciting, often sensuous, stories about a family descended from Solomon, a freed slave who, according to legend, flew on his own wings back to Africa, leaving his wife and twenty-one children behind.

The male protagonist, Milkman Dead, is the arrogant son of a wealthy slumlord. His aunt Pilate, a poor woman whose life is filled with love, is so vibrant a contrast and so dominating a force in the family, however, that she becomes the fulcrum upon which the action turns. Milkman's selfishness vs. Pilate's compassion, his desire to escape from the family vs. her need to remember its stories and its past, his love-'em-and-leave-'em attitude toward women vs. her generosity of spirit ("If I'd-a knowed more people, I'd-a loved more," she says)--parallel the tensions which seize every generation of this family.

The novel develops impressionistically, not chronologically, as stories about characters from four generations unfold, seemingly at random. The relationships of all these characters, along with the time line in which they live, evolve only gradually. When Milkman's father, Macon Dead, Jr., tells him the story about how he, accompanied by his sister Pilate, killed a man in a cave and then discovered many bags of the man's gold, Milkman begins the journey which will lead to his discovery of who he is and what gives real meaning to life. In an effort to find the missing gold, he travels to the farm where earlier generations of the family lived, discovering, in the process, the missing links in the family's chain of memories.

Racism is a pervading theme, from the flight of Solomon to the execution of Macon Dead on his own land, and, in the 1960s, the formation of The Seven Days, a vigilante group that kills whites in direct proportion to the number of blacks killed and left unavenged. The novel is primarily about an arrogant young man's self-discovery, however, and the importance of being connected. Lyrical, richly descriptive, powerfully dramatic, and filled with symbols and motifs that connect Milkman in universal ways to the Bible and to the earliest epics, this is Toni Morrison at her best.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 224 reviews
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"Sula"

(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselman JUN 4, 2006)

If The Bluest Eye marked Toni Morrison's entry into the literary world, then Sula established her as a literary force. This short novel follows two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up together in the Bottom, a black section of an Ohio town, and who become fast friends despite their radically different home lives. When a horrific accident occurs and the girls decide to keep it a secret, they are both forever connected, even as the event begins to drive them apart. Nel embraces the conventional life of her own mother, marrying Jude right out of high school, while Sula escapes her wildly distressed family life for college and a life of expensive clothes and white men. However, when Sula returns and everything bad about the Bottom is blamed on her, Nel is forced to confront what is "bad" within herself.

Told from the points of view of many characters, Sula provides a multifaceted portrait of a community and, within it, a friendship. Morrison confronts superstition, the role of women in black society, the ravages of war, legacy, and the gray areas of morality and perception that don't make any of the preceding easy to define. Students studying this work might want to concentrate on characterization (Sula's mother Hannah and her grandmother Eva are as complex as Sula and Nel) and the rhythm of Morrison's prose, especially in the first-person sections.

Morrison has proven through her body of work that she is one of America's premier novelists, a writer who can portray multiple levels of even the simplest plot. Since she has written so few novels (eight at this writing), readers should easily be able to familiarize themselves with all her books. For those who have not read Morrison, I recommend starting with this book or Song of Solomon since the others are either more demanding or, in the case of The Bluest Eye, not as complex.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 243 reviews
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"Tar Baby"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 7, 2000)

Valerian Street, the Candy King, made sure he would retire at age 65. He bought a tropical island and built a house preparing for those later years. He did miss his mark a bit by retiring at 67, but no matter, he is now finally able to spend a little extra time at L'Arbe de la Croix. And quality time this is. He's especially fond of his greenhouse where he spends most of his "waking" hours nursing his cognac and the flowers of his native Philadelphia.

Yet the rest of the entourage are wondering if they will ever be allowed back to Philadelphia. What started as a temporary extended stay has lasted three years. His wife, Margaret, has had enough of Island living and plans to move near her son right after the Christmas holidays, though Valerian doubts he'll show for Christmas. Sydney and Ondine, are not as much dissatisfied with Island living as with the unsettlement of it. Ondine's best cooking utensils are sitting unused in Philadelphia. Right now, they are happy because their niece, Jadine, is there too and they are together like family. They seem to disregard why she might be there. She's graduated from college, has started a successful career as a model, has no less than three men interested in marrying her. But while shopping in Paris for a party to celebrate her good fortune, a tar black woman in a yellow dress spits at her. This act is what has made her suddenly come to the island. The man she is most likely to marry is white and she questions if it is her black skin that he loves or is it her. Slow to realize his presence, there is stranger hiding in the house. Son jumped ship and hid away on a sailboat coming to the island. He's been stealing chocolate and spring water for the past several weeks. He's also been watching the household sleep, especially Jade. This contentious household needs the pivotal change brought about when Margaret unexpectantly finds Son in her closet.

With this small cast of characters, Tar Baby juxtaposes every nuance of race and class. Sydney may be a servant, but he has pride since he is "one of those industrious Philadelphia Negroes - the proudest people in the race." He and Ondine see themselves as superior to the black "Yardboy" and his "Marys" who come over to do odd chores and laundry. Through Valerian's sponsorship, Jadine has been molded by the white culture. While visiting, L'Arbe de la Croix, she stays in a regular guest room yet, she's not a full guest since she does work for Margaret as a secretary of sorts. Margaret, on the other hand, was the "principal beauty of Maine," growing up poor, but attracting Valerian when he sees her red hair and white skin (red and white like his namesake candy) on a Polar Bear float. Margaret, even after thirty years of marriage, is still afraid to pick up a utensil at the dining table. Margaret, lonely for the friendship of the only other person in the house that is her age, but told that it is wrong to be friends with Ondine. We evenutally learn the damage of this unnatural barrier. Then there's Valerian who has relied on Sydney for every meal and every dressing for the past fifty years. Sydney may the servant, but there is advantage in taking care of another person's every need.

Finally there is the dark stranger. Who upon first appearance, when found in Margaret's closet, looks and smells like an animal. Despite this, Valerian invites this Black American to sit at the dining table, sending Margaret off on a spell, puzzling Sydney and scaring Ondine. He is even given his own guest room and some of Valerian's suits. In the end, he cleans up well. And as expected, Son's strongest pull is on Jadine. But can this relationship work between a white-educated black girl and a man from the all black town of Eloe, Florida?

Toni Morrison is a polished and literate writer. No matter the subject, each word, sentence and paragraph is well-written and a pleasure to read. I sense the skill of all great writers that she has ever studied in her craft. Although, not as much of a mainstay as in Beloved, there is still the touch of Magic Realism. She mixes Island legend with imagery to cut at the core of the racial dilemma facing Jadine. For example, Son and Jade run out of gas while returning from the beach. Son goes to get gas and Jade decides to do some sketching. She heads for the shade of some trees, and gets sucked in by tar. As she tries to inch her way out, the mythical women in the trees look down:

"They were delighted when first they saw her, thinking a runaway child had been restored to them. But upon looking closer they saw differently. This girl was fighting to get away from them. The women hanging in the trees were quiet now, but arrogant -- mindful as they were of their value, their exceptional femaleness; knowing as they did that the first world of the world had been built with their sacred properties; that they alone could hold together the stones of pyramids and the rushes of Moses's crib; knowing their steady consistency, their pace of glaciers, their permanent embrace, they wondered at the girl's desperate struggle down below to be free, to be something other than they were."

As much as the there is the magical quality of such paragraphs, Tar Baby excels in snappish dialog, the mainstay for this household's existence.

I am very surprised that I had not read any Toni Morrison until this summer. There are many writers that I hold in high regard (Joyce Carol Oates, D.H. Lawrence, Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, etc.) that are not yet among MostlyFiction.com's pages, only because I haven't read any of their books in the past five to six years. But Toni Morrison is different. Somehow her novels had bypassed me all together until now. The old adage "better late than never" is all too true in this case.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 57 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Nonfiction:

Other:

  • Dreaming Emmet (a play) (1985)
  • Margaret Garner (libretto) (2005)

Children's Books (written with Slade Morrison):

Books on Morrison:

E-Book Study Guide:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Toni MorrisonToni Morrison was born as Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio in 1931. Her parents had moved North to escape the problems of Southern racism. Toni spent her childhood reading everything from Austen to Tolstoy while her father told her folk tales of the black community, transferring his African-American heritage to her. In 1949, Morrison entered Howard University, a black college, in Washington DC. Morrison continued her studies at Cornwell University in New York and received her M.A. in 1955 where she wrote her thesis on William Faulkner.

From 1955-57 Morrison taught English at Texas' Southern University; from 1957-64 she taught English at Howard University. She married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect in 1958, but was divorced by 1964. In 1964 she moved to Syracuse New York, with her two children to work as a textbook editor and then transferred to Random House's New York headquarters where she edited books including those by black authors Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. She continued to teach at the State University of New York. In 1984 she was appointed to an Albert Schwitzer chair at the University of New York at Albany where she assisted writers through two-year fellowships.

Morrison's books have received wide recognition. Sula won the National Book Critics Award. Song of Solomon was the main selection of the Book-of-the Month Club, the first novel by a black writer chosen since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1949. In 1988 Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel Beloved. But her greatest achievement was winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She has been a member of both the National Council on the Arts and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Morrison has actively used her influence to defend the role of the artist and encouraged the publication of other black writers. Morrison is Robert F. Goheen Professor, Council of the Humanities, at Princeton University.

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