Beloved – Third Book Review for Black History Month Series

beloved-by-toni-morrisonIt is 1873. The Civil War is over. Slaves are freed. Sethe, a former slave, lives as a free woman in rural Ohio. She had been a runaway slave, fleeing the South and finding freedom back when such actions were illegal by law. But all that is over now, she is no longer a wanted woman. Nothing left but the best of times…right? No. Not true.

Sethe raises her daughter Denver (age = 11? 12?) in a haunted house. Ghostly handprints appear in a cake. Mirrors shatter, a kettle of chickpeas is tossed on the floor. Sethe has other children besides Denver, but they are gone. Howard and Buglar, in particular, ran away at the young age of thirteen. Two young boys off on their own, never heard from again. They fled the ghost that haunted their home.

Sethe and Denver live a reclusive, dreary life. They are lonely. Along comes Paul D, a former slave from Sweet Home, the plantation to which both he and Sethe were enslaved. He too notices the ghost at Sethe’s place. It shines as a pool of red light.

“Good God. What kind of evil you got here?” Paul D asks.

“It’s not evil, just sad. Come on, Just step through.”

 

And Paul D listens. He steps through.

Paul D takes up residence at the house. He and Sethe begin a romantic relationship.  Whereas Denver has her misgivings about Paul D, Sethe seems happier than she has been in a long time. For you see, Paul D has chased the ghost away.  According to Sethe, the ghost = sadness. Has Paul D eradicated sadness from her life? Maybe temporarily.

The past haunts us all. Mostly in stories about the supernatural, the haunting past makes its presence known in the form of a ghost, as it does here in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer  prize winning novel Beloved. But a past such as Sethe’s is so troubling that its haunting demands a far more substantive expression than that of an ethereal phantom.  The ghost is gone but the past returns again, this time in flesh and bones.  It comes back in the form of a young girl/woman with the brain of a child. This woman appears to Sethe, Denver and Paul D on the road, looking and smelling as if she had just risen from the swamp.

Sethe takes pity on her and invites her into her home and welcomes her into her family. This mystery girl/woman is name is Beloved. Soon Sethe will realize  who she is and…what she is. She is both the precious past and the putrid.  She is love. She is guilt. She is beautiful. She is the ugliest  of realities. She is whole, not minced.

Who is Beloved? I will not answer that question directly. From a very simple and literal perspective, the answer to that question is unveiled very early on in the novel. This “literal” answer might even be found in the book’s synopsis on Amazon or on any other platform that sells the book. Even so, these answers will not explain the depths of Beloved’s identity. Perhaps there is no one true explanation.  I will be presenting some of my thoughts about this. But as for the surface explanation  concerning her identity and why she comes packaged with a tragedy that eats away at Sethe’s soul, you will have to read the book to understand these things.

Beloved is much more than a ghost story. There are several back stories that serve as case studies for some very interesting characters. Following these characters back in time, the novel  transports us to the harsh days before  the Civil War came to an end. Toni Morrison gives readers a glimpse into plantation life and it isn’t pretty to say the least. The book details the lives of these characters as slaves and shows us the great lengths to which they go in their quests for freedom. Considering  such hardships, it is understandable  that authors such as Tiya Miles  believe  that Beloved represents  the physical embodiment of “the history of slavery”. (From her book “Tales of the Haunted South – Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era” This is up next for review!) There is merit to this view. Certainly the inhumane past Sethe and her family  endured continues to haunt her and disrupt their daily  living. The damage inflicted by slavery does not simply fade upon its cessation. Its takes generations to fully  eradicate.

To me, Beloved represents an extension of Sethe.  Let me explain. Much of the novel explores the  building and destruction of self boundaries.  One of the book’s characters, an elderly black woman that goes by the name “Baby Suggs,” preaches to congregants, telling them to “Look at your hands. They are yours. They are beautiful”.  Former slaves needed reminders that their bodies no longer belonged to some master or mistress. They needed to know that even when they were in captivity, their thoughts, their feelings, their very “selves” had been theirs all along. This sense of self is not so easily  apparent when one is shackled like an animal, sold like livestock, and forcibly separated from family.

At one point in the story, Sethe is violated, held down and robbed of the milk in her breasts by the nephews of the plantation owner. With experiences such as this, it can be difficult to not only feel a sense of self worth but to have a healthy understanding of the concept of “the self” at all.  Without this understanding, one’s sense of self can be projected onto others.

In another part of the book, we learn that Sethe herself had committed an unspeakable act. Unable to come to terms with what she had done, her guilt manifests into another person, into Beloved.  To quote from Beloved herself , “I am not separate from her. There is no place where I stop…her face is my own.”

Who is Beloved? She is so many things. When all is said and done, she is the genius that is Toni Morrison. Morrison’s book is a patchwork of keen psychological insights, layers upon layers of them. She writes dialogue in the vernacular of her subjects and composes her concepts with thoughtful depth. She uncovers the abstract and makes it real, painfully real.

Beloved may not make my top ten list of  favorite haunted house novels. This does not matter, for you see, Beloved has earned its rightful place on my list of top ten novels overall, regardless of genre. The haunted house is but one concept in a sea of themes that Morrison touches upon. Nevertheless, her novel features a haunted house and therefore, Beloved is a most welcomed addition to my collection of reviews.   It is a brilliant piece of literature.


 

About the Author

 

BelovedToniMorrisonToni Morrison is a professor emeritus from Princeton University. She is the author of several novels and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her novel Beloved.

*** The information above was taken from Wikipedia.com

White is for Witching – Second Book Review for Black History Month Series

 

WhiteisForWitching2

I don’t even know how to begin. This book, White is for Witching, stumps  me. For sure this will be one of  the more challenging  reviews because I really don’t know what to say about it. I’m not certain  what the book us getting at it. I still haven’t  made my mind up on whether I like  this novel or not. So, I guess this  is it then. Buy it here if you wish. Good luck  with it. Peace out my friends!

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Fine, I’ll try to do better than that! Maybe a list of the multiple themes would be a good start. If this book is about anything, it’s about several things. It’s about a college-aged young woman named Miranda Silver. The very first chapter leaves readers with the impression that “Miri” (Miranda  for short) is either dead and buried, off on her own  somewhere, a runaway without  any shoes, or just hiding underneath some strands of symbolism that the author has spun.  Three competing entities are trying to assess her whereabouts; three different  perspectives; perspectives for which we the readers will come to know the story. (I’ll  explain  why I am using the term  “entities” momentarily ) First there is Ore, Miri’s  friend from college. She says that Miri is “in the ground underneath  her mother’s  house”. Eliot , Miri’s  brother, states that she just ran off somewhere  one dark and windy night. Finally, an entity known as 29 Barton Road insists that Miri is a home, inside its  confines  someplace. “29 Barton Road” is the haunted house. It’s also the Bed and Breakfast that Miri’s  family operates. It too shares is perspective with us. Since it is not human, I refer to the four that share their perspectives as entities. Four? Who is the fourth? That would be Miri herself. She too shares her side of things. A rather skewed  perspective it is! Or is it? We learn early on that Miri is not entirely mentally  stable. Is this a case  of an unreliable  narrator? More than that, the whole book is an unreliable  narrative – no matter what you think this story is about, it’s probably about something  else.

More topics, more things  this book is about (or isn’t – you know, that whole “unreliable  narrative” thing.)  It’s about grieving. The family at center  of the story, The Silver  family,  lost its Matriarch, Lily. She was a journalist who was murdered  on assignment in Haiti. Eliot blames his sister  Miri for this, for she wouldn’t  stay awake over there in England  while the murder was happening  in Haiti. How does this make sense? I don’t know, some kind of symbolism that’s lost on me  I guess. But after  the fact, Miri wears her mother’s watch that is always  set at Haitian  time. Speaking  of Miri, she suffers from pica, a psychological  disease that causes one to consume non-edible  objects. Chalk is her favorite snack. Readers also learn that Miri was institutionalized  sometime after her mother’s  death. So the book is about battling mental illness  as well.

The book is also about the politics  of group identity, nativism, and immigration. A group  of Kosovan girls have it in for Miri on account of something she said or did to one of the girl’s  boyfriends. Miri insists  it’s a case of mistaken identity. She never did such a thing!  Or did she? Who is “she” anyway? Who are any of us?

Move over Miri, Ore is taking over the story!  The novel dedicates several chapters to her perspective. She is of African  descent, adopted by a white British family. She is the butt of “good natured (really?)” ridicule from her white, conservative male cousins. She attends Cambridge  with Miri. She and Miri will become lovers. She will visit Miri over the holidays, at her home, at the haunted house. Weird things will happen.

Apparently, this haunted house is objectively  haunted  and not depended on Miri’s warped mind. Early on in the story, the domestic  help quits on account of the haunting. The children of the help have a frightful experience on the lift. The replacement maid, an African  woman partial to Voodoo, notices the spiritual nature of this house, but she’s not all that freaked out by it. It’s a voodoo thing, you know. Then there’s  Miri and her meetings with her deceased mother, grandmother, great grandmother, etc. in a special room of the house. This same house  has claimed to have trapped  one of these female ancestors  within the walls and has kept her hidden for untold years. It’s a weird house. It’s a weird book. There are allusions  to vampirism  in this book as well. And witchcraft. The Silver family is white. Hey, what do ya know, white is for witching!

White is for Witching is what I might label a postmodern haunted house novel. Others might be House of Leaves and The Grip of It,  both of which I have reviewed (click on them to read these reviews). I’ll assign some characteristics of what I perceive is postmodern: lacking  a center, non-linear, rich in symbolism, and experimental. Traits such as these can make for a highly intriguing book, but I  must say that White is for Witching  is too much of these things. Did I like the book? To a certain  extent. Helen Oyeyemi  is skilled  at prose and her sentences  flow artfully. In this way it is an interesting  read. But overall  this novel doesn’t  do a whole lot for me.

I include this book in the Black History  Month theme solely on account of the author being a black woman. While this book deals with issues that blacks as a race face  (social  prejudice), there’s not a whole lot of history  going on here. But include  it I did, and to that I say “Oh well.”


About the Author

 

HelenOyeyemiHelen Oyeyemi is a British novelist originally from Nigeria. She is the recipient of numerous literary awards. She has written several books, short stories, and plays.

(The above information is taken from the following sites:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Oyeyemi

https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/helen-oyeyemi )

The Good House – First Book Review for Black History Month Series

GoodHouseTo the house that belongs to the Vodou priestess the locals brought  the possessed girl. Hopefully Marie Toussaint would cleanse her.

To the house that once belonged to her grandmother, Angela Toussaint returns. It’s hers now. Here she will jump start her life ,  take care of her  teenaged son and perhaps rekindle her love for her ex-husband . All this falls apart. Things go very wrong.

At this legendary house, Fifteen year old Corey Toussaint, curious by nature, finds magical relics that once belonged to his great grandmother. He uncovers secrets that the house hides, deadly secrets

This is a story of a terror plaguing multiple  generations, a story about a  stretch of land with strong connections to the spirit world. On this land the “The Good House” stands, home to four recipient  generations of horror.

Hi there!  In honor of Black History Month, I welcome you to the first review in this series of haunted house novels written by black women. I begin with Tananarive  Due’s acclaimed novel The Good House.  “Good House” is haunted, but it is not the epicenter of the haunting. The trigger for the haunting lies within the lineage of the Toussaint family and on the spirit-laden lands upon which the house rests. It is the combination of a family sensitive to the magic of Vodou positioned in an environment that is receptive to other-worldly forces that stirs up the ghosts, or more appropriately, the demons. Or most appropriately – the “baka”.

The story unfolds from multiple perspectives.  At the heart of the story is Angela Toussaint. I suppose she would be the central character. If this were made into a movie, whoever played Angela would be the actress in a leading role.  The year is 2001 (approximately) and Angela, a successful lawyer from California, is temporarily residing in her second home in Sacajawea, Washington for the summer. This is “Good House”  (also “Goode House”), her childhood home, where she was raised by her grandmother, Marie Toussaint, now deceased. Angela ’ s own mother was unfit to raise her due to mental health issues (or perhaps  her soul was “infected”.)

The townsfolk  of Sacajawea warmly welcome Angela’s return. Her family, her house, it’s all part of the town’s history, all woven into the fabric of the community, though the weaving process , from a historical perspective, was quote contentious. She is one of the few black members of the community. Mostly, race is not an issue, although the town  has pockets of redneck racists. (Her son Corey will learn this) She is highly respected. But when her grandmother  was young woman living in Good House.it was a different  story.

Angela  is seeking  to  refresh  her life.  Having only partial custody of her teenaged  son, her experiences with him have been limited  as of late and she wishes to change that. Corey  seems to favor his father, and so she tries to rebond  with him one fateful summer at Good House. At the same time, her relationship  with her ex-husband is not lost. He visits  the house, and there is a rekindling.

So far I am describing a rebuilding of family and community. But this will not happen. Instead everything falls apart. Neighbors go insane. Some kill their loved ones. Others kill themselves. Her friends suffer horrific calamities   Her own family meets tragedy  head on. Something unspeakable  has been unleashed.

As previously mentioned, Angela’s story is the central  narrative. And yet, it is my least favorite of the various perspectives. At times, it gets too bogged down in mundane things such as the tasks involving  her career and the details  of her exercise routine. Even the attention focused on her love life was too much for me. For my tastes. But then again, I’m a guy and romance dramas don’t do a whole lot for me. However, Angela’s story ties together the stories from the perspectives of other characters, so her tale is an important  one. And it is these other perspectives that I  will now focus on. For me, they capture the intrigue of the book. These would be the perspectives  of Corey the teenager  and Marie the grandmother. WARNING: there will be spoilers  ahead. I don’t know how else to discuss the themes I’m   about to delve into without them.


 

Spoilers  Section

Marie Toussaint

 

Why is the house at the center of the story a “good house”? Because once upon a time, people  came to the house to be healed. Because the former owner, Elijah Goode, a pharmacist in the early 1900s, dispensed medicines, specially brewed with natural  herbs and a little bit of magic. The herbs grew on blessed grounds, on land populated with spirits. These special medicines were concocted by his maid Marie Toussaint, later to be his wife, a voodoo priestess. Marie will inherit the house upon Elijah ’ s death, marry an Indian man, be the recipient of much hatred and racism. Still, she will exorcise a demon from one of the daughters of the townsfolk. It is “a good house”. It was a “good”  thing for her to do, especially since she was the one to summons the demon  in the first place.

What if you were a black woman of Creole  descent in the 1920s,  and your life was turned  upside-down by murderous racists, and you had the power to extract revenge on them with an act that was as simple as snapping your fingers? Would you go in for the  kill? Marie Toussaint showed restraint when her first husband was murdered by racists in New Orleans. When she moved across  the country to Washington with her young daughter and married a white pharmacist, Elijah Goode (His house = Goode/Good House), racism would rear its ugly head again, even after she helped the nearby communities by using magic to extract the healing power within the herbs that grew on this enchanted land.   When she, a black woman, inherited the house of her husband, a white man, people in the nearby town of Sacajawea sought out lawyers to get her out. To further piss-off this community of racists, she took Red John as a common law  husband. He was formerly viewed as “the good Indian who knew his place”. Red John had been “the white man’s pet”, but this new arrangement might cause him to step “out of his place”.  Both Marie and Red John were stepping out of their places, so the people of the town  shot bullets through her windows and front door.

It was all Marie could stand. She gave into anger. A kind of momentary  anger that all  of us fall victim  to now and again. An anger that might elicit a curse word or two from ordinary people. Marie is not an ordinary person. She utters a curse. But the thing is, her words are packed with much more power than your average “God damn you!” Chances are, God won’t sent a person to Hell based upon one person’s idle request. Marie remembered  a word that was stolen from the gods. A powerful  word. She spoke it, unleashing a powerful baka. Her words, so simple to say, so deadly the consequences. Mudslides ravage  the down. A demon is summoned  and it does what demons do – it possesses the living.

This is the backstory – the history.  But as all of us amateur historians know, history repeats itself. Some eighty years later, the baka will once again be summoned and ravage the community. Who is it that calls upon the baka? Her great grandson Corey.

 

Corey Toussaint

 

Corey, fifteen, an aspiring poet and rap artist, is having trouble adjusting to his new environment in the rural northwest.  For a whole summer, he must live with his mother Angela at Good House in  Sacajawea, Washington.  He is used to his urban environment in Los Angeles, where he has many friends and lives under the lax supervision of his father. He had no friends in Sacajawea. His mother is naggy and strict. He is the only black kid in the community.

Eventually, he forms a friendship with a white kid named Sean. They share a love for rap music. However, not all of the kids in this community are friendly to him. Some are downright hostile, such as the town bully Bo Cryer , proud of his confederate flag t-shirts, ready to beat “sense” into this new “gangster kid”.   And beat him he does.

Corey is a bright and curious kid. He finds items of his great grandmother  hidden away in the house. He finds her diaries, reads her  journals. He learns Vodou  spells. At first, he uses these spells for innocent things, such as reclaiming lost items. But even this kind of tampering  has its costs. And when he speaks the forbidden word to get back at the bully ,  all hell breaks loose.

Here Ends the Spoilers Sections

 


 

So, are there any, shall we say, “Haunted  House  happenings” in the story?  There are some. A piano plays by itself, a presence or two are felt at times, a mysterious ”friend” of Corey’s defies physics by the way she sits on a tree branch and talks to him through his upstairs  window. Sometimes the plumbing churns out foul black slush through the faucets. Then there is the night that every  room in the house is blanketed with leaves, turning the floors of Good House into a forest’s  bed. As previously mentioned, the house is not necessarily the “ epicenter of the haunting.”  But the house itself is important to the story, so much so that author Tananarive  Due devotes attention to describing the rooms, the attic and cellar, the furnishings and portraits on the wall.  The modern day characters that populate the Sacajawea community (Sacajawea is a fictional town, BTW) have great respect for the Goode House. For them it is not only an historical landmark, but it’s a history that continues on.  The townsfolk cling to the stories of the past that that focus on the generosity of Angela’s grandmother, Marie Toussaint. She is spoken of as a town healer. When Angela returns to her property and hosts a Fourth of July party at Goode House, many prominent people of the town show up. They have warm affections for Angela and the house and its history of “goodness”.

The people of Sacajawea have either forgotten the darker history of Goode House or have chosen not to confront it. Some still remember, or at least know of the cruel accounts of racism directed toward Marie Toussaint and her house (details of this are in the spoiler section above), but they either don’t speak of these things or do so in a “hush-hush” tone. But such a darkness cannot be extinguished by modern lights. Maybe this is one of the many messages of the book?

Is there anything to say about this book concerning the subject of black history? Well, this is a work of fiction, for sure. Even when it comes to the subject of Vodou, Due admits that while she utilized real concepts associated within that religion (i.e. “lwas”, spirits  of Haitian  Vodou or “baka”, evil spirits), she creatively improvised when it came to creating the spells, prayers, and magic that take place in story. But Vodou is a real  religion and it was practiced by many African slaves

From Britannica.com 

“Vodou is a creolized religion forged by descendants of Dahomean, Kongo, Yoruba, and other African ethnic groups who had been enslaved and brought to colonial Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was known then) and Christianized by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

While fictional and fanciful, Good House does point to many historical circumstances on the subject of black history. It teaches the importance of family and the value of heritage, especially for a people that were so cruelly uprooted. It reminds us of the prevalence of racism toward African Americans in the early part of the twentieth century, and lets us not forget the ongoing prejudice and discrimination that still occurs today. On this last note, maybe I should repeat a phrase I used earlier that gets to the heart of this…and more. I will do that. Here I go:

“ But such a darkness cannot be extinguished by modern lights.”

In other words, our country’s racist past cannot be erased. The ghosts of history will not allow for this. Nor should they.

 


 

About the Author

 

GoodHouseTananariveDueTananarive Due is a an educator, former journalist and author. She is the daughter of civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, who as a member of CORE, (Congress of Racial Equity) and participated in several marches and a jail-in. Tananarive is the author of several books on the subject of  black history/speculative fiction. Her novel “Black Rose” is based upon the research of Alex Haley.

***The above information was taken from Wikipedia.com