Book Review: ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison

(Penguin Books, New York, 1987)

‘Beloved’ is perhaps the most beautiful book I’ve ever read, as a reader, and definitely one of the most heartbreaking.  Of course it won a Nobel Prize….

Ms. Morrison’s microcosmic world of characters, former slaves all of them trying to carve a life out of the freedom the war apparently won them, is wrought with a raw emotion and human-ness that strikes the reader to the very core of what it means to be trapped by circumstances.

“For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love.  The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.”

“During, before and after the war he had seen Negroes so stunned or hungry, or tired or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything. Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him, slept in trees in the day and walked by night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells to avoid regulators, raiders, paterollers, veterans, hill men, posses and merrymakers.”

Ms. Morrison draws and paints her story from some un-sounded deep wells of humanity, reminding us that within each of us lies the capacity for evil as well as good. The story’s main character, Sethe (pronounced seth-uh) escaped via the Underground Railroad to Cincinnati (giving birth along the way), where she waits with her four small children for the husband that never catches up to her as agreed (She finds out later that his sanity snapped when he witnessed her being abused at the hands of two white boys).   In the very first weeks of her freedom, her old master comes and “…she flew, snatching up her children like a hawk on the wing; how her face beaked, how her hands worked like claws, how she collected them every which way:  one on her shoulder, one under her arm, one by the hand, the other shouted forward into the woodshed filled with just sunlight and shavings…”

Sethe made a mother’s choice.  She made a heart-wrenching, unforgivable, understandable mother’s choice:  Send her children into the afterlife where they would be free from the torture of the man coming to get them, or allow them to be captured again, treated like animals.  Could she let her sons face the potential of a horse bit in his mouth like her brother experienced?  No.  She would see them on the other side, God would understand and so would they, and they would not suffer this life.

She was not recaptured.  The sight of a blood crazed mother put out their fire.  Sethe was left alone, with three of her children unharmed since they got to the shed in time.  She went on to live a semblance of a life, taking care of a heartbroken mother-in-law and watching her two sons leave as soon as they were able.  She ended up with only Denver, the little girl born on their escape, living in a house haunted with the ghost of the child she sent on ahead.

The life Sethe leads reminded me of an important lesson I learned a while back:  we have the ability to make our own prisons in life, whether it be to circumstances, a health issue, an unhealthy relationship, a burden of guilt.   Sethe was a literal prisoner to ‘schoolteacher’ but she made herself prisoner to her guilt and shame.  Ultimately, the prison closed in around her and in a final act of fear, she lets go of everything, broken and in pieces.   An old friend comes round, he’s been unsure of Sethe until now, but he offers a new life, without any prison:  “Sethe,” he says, me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody.  We need some kind of tomorrow.”

In the end, the two lay down their past and lift their heads to ‘tomorrow’ and the ghost that haunts Sethe is laid to rest at last.

beloved

‘Beloved’ is perhaps the most beautiful book I’ve ever read, as a writer, and definitely one of the most heartbreaking.  Of course it won a Nobel Prize….

If the story itself wasn’t enthralling enough, if the characters didn’t break your heart, then the writing will capture your eye and mind and keep you hostage.   Ms. Morrison’s use of language and structure in this work is wonderful magic.   A single phrase when referring to one of her characters, “Baby Suggs, holy,” offers a visual and mental motif to the story that provides an elegant consistency, like the bass line to a good song.   She breaks up the chapters occasionally, to keep the rhythm varied and the reader awake:  long narratives interspersed with short ditties that add fine details, another layer of depth and nuanced tones to the overall piece.  Ms. Morrison sets a high bar for us writers with ‘Beloved’, as such I can only be inspired by its artwork and its place among masterpieces,

As a reader, I would recommend this book for its beautiful story, engaging characters, and the sweet resolve it finds in the end.

As a writer, I would recommend this book as a sort of standard to hold up – “THIS!  THIS IS WHAT ART AND WRITING ARE ABOUT!”

No wonder it won the Nobel Prize…..

Keep writing kids…who knows what deep wells might bubble up from within….

Frankie

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About Frankie Wallace

Frankie earned her BA in History from CSU Chico. She lives in northern California with one husband, two dogs, and three boys. Frankie is an avid cooker, reader, hiker, and napper. View all posts by Frankie Wallace

2 responses to “Book Review: ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison

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