Monday, August 6, 2012

Toni Morrison's Home

So where was I? Ah, yes, I've managed to move my catch-up from First, to Second. . . and that only took me three weeks. Time to get to Third base here, and that's the one, if you'll pardon the absolute corniness of this segue, that will bring me to Home,
Toni Morrison's Home, that is.

What a wonderful novel, piercing and true and powerful, as we long ago learned to expect from Morrison. This book grabs hold fiercely from the first page. What is this italicized framing device? Who's speaking? And when? It's all in the past tense but strikingly immediate, a young brother protecting an even younger sister from the horrifying sight of a black man being buried covertly. But it's being addressed to someone in the present tense, someone "set on telling my story" . . . someone who needs to know that the man who was once that young boy "forgot about the burial [only remembering] the horses" that he and his sister had snuck into a field to see.

Three pages in, and we're gripped, completely in the thrall of a storyteller. Whoever is "set on telling [this] story," though, balances carefully between entertaining us and instructing us. Thus moving forward through the pages, irresistible though it is, requires fortitude and sometimes demands painful pauses as we reconcile ourselves to the continuing damages of systemic racism as well as the damages of war. The young boy of the opening pages has grown up, accepted the hopelessness of his small Georgia town and, with his best friends from childhood, enlisted in the Korean War. Broken by their violent deaths, by the horrors he has seen and perpetrated in that military action, he struggles with what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

That term, although applicable enough to what Frank Money has experienced, doesn't go far enough. The traumas he has witnessed began so much earlier in his life than any military trauma, as  the opening pages testify. And as the opening pages also suggest, there are important gaps in his memory. These gaps will be filled in  as Frank makes his way across the country to rescue his younger sister from an abusive situation involving domestic service. Carrying her home, nursing her  together with the community, he uncovers some ugly truths that had been long repressed. But he also discovers and quietly learns to celebrate the strengths, joys, and resiliences of his people. He learns that the word "home" does have a meaning, for him personally, that is not only ironic but also redemptively powerful.

Back in 2010, I wrote about reading Morrison's A Mercy, and I noted that I once saw an interview featuring Morrison. In it, she said something to the effect that if you are going to confront your readers with difficult truths, you need to give them some compensation for that confrontation -- the aesthetic delivery should provide some kind of payoff, reward, redemption even, for the ugliness of the narrative events. I'm paraphrasing crudely, but I think I'm capturing the spirit of what she said. 

The paraphrase applies as much to Home as it did to Mercy. This is not a book written solely for your reading pleasure. It contains difficult truths, not only about a particular period in history, but also about the ugliness that is part of humanity. At the same time, though, it offers recompense in language, imagery, and in structure -- dazzling recompense. Indeed, I'm still pondering, weeks after finishing the novel, a relationship between narrator and purported writer (the fictitious writer barely visible within the text, that is) that is intriguing and intimate and somehow disturbing in its difference from any narrative perspective I can remember reading. Particularly because of the level of honesty involved with the novel's most powerful featuring of that relationshop, Chapter Fourteen.

As usual, I'm keen to share impressions of the novel. Have you read it? If so, let me know what you thought; if not, I highly recommend it. This is one I'm happy to have in hardcover, knowing that I'll return to it for several rereadings through the years.

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