Author: Toni Morrison
First published: 1987, by Alfred A. Knopf
Sixty million, and more.
It’s very difficult for me to write about this novel, for what can one say about something that renders horror so beautifully? Any words I might conjure up about Beloved can only stand weakly in the shadow of its awesome power.
But I’ll try.
Beloved is the story of Sethe, a former slave from a plantation in Kentucky, now living in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1873. It’s the story of her lonely daughter Denver, who was born in a leaking boat during Sethe’s escape. And it’s the story of Beloved, Sethe’s other daughter, who has “returned” to the house at 124 Bluestone Road, eighteen years after her violent and bloody death. Ultimately Beloved is a gorgeous, luxurious, hideous account of American slavery and its enduring effects.
It’s no mystery as to what makes this story so “beautiful”—it’s the language. Toni Morrison’s language creates a richly textured, sensual world, even as it describes unimaginable events and situations from one of the darkest periods of our history. As one friend of mine says, “When I read Beloved, I feel like I’m being simultaneously soothed and beaten.” That’s exactly it . . . an effect achieved in no other novel I know. And aside from the artistry, it is a textbook, a history lesson. Morrison’s gift to us, in the most stunning prose, is a visceral and beautifully crafted account of America’s ugliest moment.
Paul D did not answer because she didn’t expect or want him to, but he did know what she meant. Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight copper dirt, moon—everything belonged to the men who had the guns. Little men, some of them, big men too, each one of whom he could snap like a twig if he wanted to. Men who knew their manhood lay in their guns and were not even embarrassed by the knowledge that without gunshot fox would laugh at them. And these “men” who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother—a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose—not to need permission for desire—well now, that was freedom.
Photo credit: Audrey Staples