I just finished Toni Morrison's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winner "Beloved." It is worthy of its honor. It is awkward reading at first, becoming accustomed to the language of slaves and newly freed slaves. It takes place in post-Civil War Cincinnati and has flashbacks to other locations, mostly in the South. But once you get to know the characters and their manner of speaking, it is a very intimate tale that highlights the extreme trauma of being a slave and then being an alienated freed slave, living in a country that is not really yours, but is the only land you know.
The story involves a woman (Baby Suggs) who was freed before the emancipation because her son (Halle) bought her contract from their comparatively humane master. Sethe is Baby Suggs daughter-in-law, who arrived in Cincinnati barely alive and just having given birth to Denver, en route to Cincinnati. Sethe's other children arrived ahead of her, as part of a plan for their whole family to escape and reunite with Halle's mother. Halle, Sethe's husband, disappears before the escape.
Most of the story takes place after the war has ended, but is dependent heavily on events of the past, particularly the death of Sethe's toddler, Beloved. The nature of Beloved's death is unraveled ingeniously throughout the novel, but Beloved is present throughout the book. Her ghost lives in the house with her mother (Sethe) and her sister (Denver) as a welcomed, if inconvenient and temperamental guest.
It's never certain whether the ghost is real or merely a manifestation of the pain and memories of Sethe and Denver, but they are not the only ones who can hear and see her. And the reader becomes convinced of her physical reality along the way.
The book is full of degradation, extreme loss and struggle, and yet joy is an integral part of attitudes in the book. Baby Suggs, Sethe's stepmother, whose son freed her with his own labor, is considered a holy woman throughout the black community. Her philosophy demands that black people love themselves, in spite of all their training toward self-hatred.
Paul D, an escaped slave who in free times seeks out Sethe as a woman who has always captivated his heart. He knew her and her husband on the farm from which they escaped. Paul D is my favorite character in the book, and has traveled widely since his many escapes and eventual emancipation and who cannot fail to see the beauty of the country around him despite his repeated attempts to tamp out his desires and attachments. As a shackled slave, he and his fellow prisoners attempt to "kill life" in their hearts because of the repeated disappointments it has offered up to them, and the lies in the form of promise and hope that it had presented.
And yet Paul D is a loving and gentle man whose mere presence has the odd ability to make women cry and release their fears and burdens. He is flawed and human, but strong in soul.
Sethe had experienced as much abuse as Paul D. Although she was determined to find her own freedom, and never be subjugated again, she has her own fears and skeletons that kept her from moving on emotionally.
" Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another."
The imagery, dialect, tension and sudden, incremental revelations of secrets are all brilliant.
This is a tale of resurrection, redemption and the difficulty in acceptance and transcendence of the past. The entire book is many simple metaphors comprising a larger one, that of living in a world that doesn't love you, and finding love anyway.
Another character who lives only in the flashbacks, Sixo, relates to Paul D a wonderful tribute to the woman he loves: "She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind."
Reading this book is enriching to the heart and soul and exemplifies the meaning of compassion. I have not read a more elegantly crafted novel.