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

Honoring Black History Month: Coming Soon: Reviews of Four Haunted House Novels Written By Black Women

This February, I will be honoring black history month  here at this blog. I will be reviewing four haunted house novels written by black women. I could use the phrase  “African  American” women, but that technically would not be correct, because one of the authors is a British  woman of African  descent. This begs the question: is black history month primarily concerned with the history of people of color as it plays out on the American stage? I don’t know the answer.

I am a Caucasian; a white guy. As such it’s not my place to define what black history  month is or isn’t. Likewise, I most certainly cannot claim a shared heritage and realistically  identify  with the struggles my black brothers and sisters have endured or the triumphs they have celebrated. Therefore, unlike previous reviews and articles that were grouped into a theme (i.e. Christmas  Haunted  Houses, Haunted Apartments), I do not begin with a central concept. I am not seeking to extract characteristics  that define what a haunted house is from the black perspective. Rather, these  four works stand alone. Perhaps when all is said and done, when I  have completed the readings and written the reviews, I might  have more to say about any possible interrelated themes. But I  don’t want to get ahead of myself, nor do I wish to engage in any inappropriate analysis for the sake of some sort of self-congratulatory intellectualism.  I hope I will not do that anyway.

I guess the question is: Can we learn about authentic black history from mostly fictional novels that delve into the paranormal?  I believe we can.

Of the four works, three are fictional stories and one is a factual account. The non-fiction book deals with popular “ghost tour” houses in the American south. This book uncovers a lot of African-American history and sets the record straight about the tourist-magnet fabrications that come at the expense of the “real” ghosts that haunt these places. One of the fictional novels is set in “current” times (post Y2K) but segments of the story go back to the 1920s. Another fictional novel takes place in the years following the American Civil War, although much of the story occurs during the times of slavery. Both books show how history has affected and shaped the lives of the central characters. Though the histories are fictional, they are based on real-life historical circumstances. And, of course, both stories feature haunted houses. The fourth book, also fictional, has very little in the way of history. This book presents quite the quagmire when trying to assign a definition to it. It’s about a haunted house, but it isn’t. It’s about the politics of identity, but it isn’t. It’s…ah, just wait for the review.

I guess I could be more straightforward and just mention ahead of time the titles of the books and their respective authors, but I want there to be some kind of suspense. So..just wait. You will know soon.

Anyway, I hope this will go well, and I hope you will find this subject matter enlightening and educational

See you soon!