Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Pulitzer Project: Beloved

This one was a surprise. I'd been hearing about it for years, another one of those novels by an African-American author that gets touted as seminal, ground breaking, etc., the sort of breathless praise that always has me wondering just how bad the book is going to be. A lot of the praise for authors of color, whether they're Asian, Native American, African American, or something else, tends to have an undertone of implicit racism and condescension that reminds me of the praise for a dancing bear: there's no expectation that the bear will be good at dancing. Nope, the praise comes because the observer is amazed the bear can dance at all.

Which is why after having the unpleasant experience of trying to read The Color Purple I was not expecting much from Beloved. Toni Morrison was a woman of color; the book had been subject to huge amounts of praise; ergo, the book was probably going to suck. I was wrong.

So are a lot of the comments and reviews I've read that spent way too much time obsessing about one aspect of the book -- infanticide -- and not enough on the book as a whole. The infanticide is one reason I never had much interest in reading Beloved until it came up on the Pulitzer list. It's as though readers became obsessed with the fact a mother killed her toddler and ignored everything else that's going on in the novel. When all that ever gets mentioned about a book is that the main character killed her baby you do find yourself wondering why you should bother reading it.

Granted, the infanticide is a key element, one that's a pivot point for several narrative threads, but it's not the only element just like the mother, Sethe, isn't the only character. There's her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. Her surviving daughter, Denver. A man, Paul D, who was a field hand at the same Kentucky farm Sethe escaped from shortly before the Civil War.

Sethe was born into slavery in Virginia. She thinks about her mother and remembers how she never really knew her. Her mother was a field hand and had been forced to continue working in the fields after Sethe was born; she wasn't even able to nurse her. That task was done by another woman who was also a wet nurse to the white babies on the plantation. Sethe remembers talking with Baby Suggs. Baby tells her she had a total of 8 children, but the only one she was allowed to keep, to have stay with her and watch grow to adulthood, marry, and have children of his own was her youngest, Halle.

Beloved moves around in time as various characters remember the past. Sethe and Paul D recall what life was like at Sweet Home (the farm in Kentucky) before and after the owner, Mr. Garner, died. Garner had been a "good" slave owner. He gave the men a fair amount of personal freedom, including allowing them to use guns to hunt wild game, and didn't believe in the extreme and cruel forms of discipline common throughout the slave states. And then he died. His widow is forced to ask her husband's brother-in-law to take over managing the farm. If Garner was on the good end of the spectrum for slave owners, the brother-in-law is at the other extreme. No one had talked about going North to freedom before the brother-in-law arrived, but it doesn't take long for him to be in charge and running away, even with the risks it entails of death or mutilation if caught, looks a lot better than staying.

The novel is loosely set between the early 1850s and the late 1860s in southern Ohio on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Mr. Garner had allowed Halle to rent himself out to buy his mother's freedom; she moved across the river and leased a house from an abolitionist family. That house is where Sethe and her children live after they've escaped from Kentucky, and it's where Sethe is living when Paul D finds her after he's spent 18 years moving around the country, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. For a few years after Baby Suggs moved in the house was seen as being a happy house where everyone was welcome. After Sethe kills her toddler daughter to prevent her from being taken back into Kentucky, though, the atmosphere changes.

I have seen Beloved described as a ghost story. It is, and it isn't. It is, however, a really nice example of magical realism. What's real? What isn't? Can anyone's memories be trusted? Is the spirit of a dead toddler truly haunting the house where she died or have Baby and Sethe convinced themselves that she must be?  The narrative shifts back and forth, from one person's perspective to another's, from the present to the past and back again. Some sections have an ethereal quality as though the person is remembering or living a dream; others are clear descriptions. Is the mysterious young woman who shows up near their house really the living embodiment of the dead toddler or is she someone or something else? Is she a revenant, a wandering spirit, or simply a real woman on whom other people are projecting their hopes and fears? The author leaves that possibility open with a passing reference to a colored woman who had been kept locked up, isolated, in a cabin by some man for most of her life. That woman had disappeared about the same time Sethe found the stranger.

Morrison does a nice job of describing the horrors of slavery, the physical abuse, while also touching on the psychological. If you were a slave you didn't even have the dignity of keeping the name your mother may have given you -- at one point Baby Suggs wonders why Mrs. Garner always calls her "Judy." Turns out that was what was on the bill of sale. On paper her name had become Judy Whitlow, Whitlow being the person who sold her. Four of the field hands are all named Paul, which is why Paul D is Paul D. The D is to differentiate him from the other three.

So where does Beloved rank on the usual scale? Somewhere between a 9 and a 10. This book actually deserved the awards it received. The prose is lyrical, the fabulism mixed with just enough grounded in reality details to keep you wondering what's real and what's imagined, the ghost may or may not exist. This is a book I'd recommend to anyone who wanted to read some good writing. It's another one where the subject matter is grim, but the reading never feels forced.

Small spoiler: despite the grimness, it does end on a slightly upbeat note. Not a classic happy ending, but also not totally depressing.

Next up on the list: Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler. Once again, it's going to be an Interlibrary Loan request.

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