Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

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So remember my DiverseAThon post? I really wanted to have it represented here on the blog… it’s Thursday. I feel like I’m getting in on the tale end, but I wanted to read as much as possible rather than write. So here is the first review… they may have to trickle into next week. But that’s ok. Diverse books are for more than 1 week. I ‘m going to make a point of reading and reviewing at least one book with diverse representation every month.

5 out of 5 stars

As I had a hard time writing up a synopsis that made sense – this is what the blurb says:

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

This has to be the most harrowing thing I have ever read.

And I’ve read some fucked up shit.

For all that, it’s the densest  and sometimes the most abstract 275 pages I’ve ever read. It was a beautiful, if sad and heartwrenching, and as I already said, a harrowing read. You can’t say enough about Toni Morrison’s prose, except for when you can. Every page is a glory. This is a book one reads about while reading it. First – I’m not smart enough to understand all the symbolism and the things that are always in a historical novel where the author knows WAY more than you do. I read this with the Shmoop chapter summary page open to help with some of that (if you don’t know Shmoop and read a lot of literary stuff and classics, GET THE HENCE, YOUNG PAGAN! ** Now when you go there, it looks like you have to pay, but you don’t. Just Google the book you are interested in, add “analysis” and “shmoop” and you should get a link to the analysis. This isn’t illegal – this isn’t bucking the system – you really don’t have to pay to access the analysis.) ) Second: there is a real woman, Margaret Garner, that this story is based on. Third, I kinda wanted to know what the “literary opinion” was on the book, only to find it very mixed. It won a lot of awards. It was snubbed for some others. Some people call it a masterpiece. Others call it overwritten. And no one could answer the question I had.

Is it a ghost or not?

Being one of those who is always irritated with Stephen King when he says his characters are haunted, not his houses, I am on the side of ghost. I read it as ghost. I like ghosts. I want them in stories and houses whenever I am given the option. But the ghost question divides people even further. Can a ghost be flesh and blood? Because I read this as Beloved being the ghost returned to flesh.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, welcome to Bettie’s reviews here on Reading, Writing, Rithmancy, where we don’t try to make sense ™. 

This may or not may be a story about a haunted house, but it’s definitely about a haunted family. The whole crux of this novel is around the scars born, both bodily and emotionally by slavery. It’s about lots of deep and earthy things: abuse, love and pain and children and family and sex, oh there is so much about sex in this, but mostly it’s the scars of slavery that run through this novel like the scars on Sethe’s back (shaped like a chokecherry tree where she was flayed open– Morrison does not stop with the imagery and the symbolism – it’s as if Sethe were wearing her family tree on her back). But the story is set around a mysterious young woman who is taken to be Sethe’s daughter back from the dead. Even her name is a mystery. The child was at the crawling stage when she died, so she must have had a name but was buried under a gravestone that said only “Beloved”. That was all Sethe could afford, or all the engraver was willing to do for 10 minutes of “rutting among the gravestones”. Sethe wondered if she had bargained with him, if she had given him a half hour would he have engraved everything the preacher said that day? But when this young woman shows up, she calls herself Beloved, and Denver, Sethe’s other daughter, begins to believe it is the dead baby come back to her.

The ghost, real or not, had managed to drive away Sethe’s other children, Buglar and Howard, but Denver is more welcoming. It’s been herself, her mother, and the ghost for a long time, then along comes Paul D. He’s the “last of the Sweet Home men”. It has a magical sound. So much of this novel does, but when the stories behind these mythical phrases come to light, they are so terrible. Basically, the farm Sethe lived before she ran away had 5 other enslaved people, all men. She managed to get her family out, but her husband Halle never showed up. I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story, but it is slowly unveiled. At first, Sweet Home wasn’t that bad. Now we should talk about “that”. “That” is obviously a qualification. Because though they weren’t beaten, and Mr. Garner, the owner, listened to them when they gave opinions, called his slaves “men” rather than the N-word, let them hunt to feed themselves, and a few other things he considered freedoms, you gotta remember Garner is a slave owner. He “let” Halle buy out his mother… but Halle had a wife and made four children at no cost to him, which Mr. Garner owned, and by the time Halle bought his mother’s freedom, she was old and unable to work. What a deal, right? Paul D wonders at being called a man – was he only a man because he was called one by his owner? If Mr. Garner took the word away, was he no longer a man? And was he only a man at Sweet Home, because he wasn’t allowed to leave without Garner accompanying him. This qualifying of slave owners in American History is just disgusting. No matter how “kind” the “good” owners were, they were still enslaving, buying, and selling human beings like chattel, and Morrison points this out at every turn. Then Mr. Garner dies and his brother comes to take over the farm and Sweet Home becomes Hell House. He’s cruel and abusive, and his cruelty undoes everything at the farm.

Denver isn’t at all happy about this new arrival. It’s clear her mother and Paul have not only history, but a strong attraction to one another. She’s jealous enough of her mother’s attention, and checks every sulky teenager box. The ghost isn’t happy about it either. It tries to stop him in his tracks, but he does what the women don’t seem able to  – he drives it off. For awhile. Then this mysterious young woman shows up and insinuates herself into the family.

But is it a ghost or not? I don’t see how it couldn’t be. There is some suggestion that Beloved could have been a sex slave, locked away most of her life, her memories distorted from trauma. She could have been on a slave ship, lost her family and been looking for them, confusing Sethe for her mother. Despite being in a body the age the dead baby would have been, around 18 or so, she’s very much like a child. Her voice is strange, as if from disuse. But she can speak. Some people think if it’s mistaken identity, the novel makes more sense. I don’t. Beloved asks too many pointed questions that relate to Sethe’s past. I think the next time I read it, because I definitely see myself returning, I will read it with the idea that she is just flesh and blood…and see if it works. I am doubtful.

Morrison addresses a lot of gender and sexual topics. Rape culture was alive and well, we know  this, and the way women were treated is as bad as you can imagine. It is baldly stated that the men’s abuse of the cows… yes, abuse of the cows, when they didn’t have women to have sex with was a matter of fact. ??? It’s not just the villains that do this. It’s all the men. As if they don’t have a choice. As if fucking a cow is necessary. I can’t get my head around this just being thrown out there. Even Sethe’s payment for the engraving is matter of fact. But at least she had the choice in that action. Is that a good thing? Is that freedom? Of a kind? Like I said. Nearly everything about reading this was harrowing. That men are just not expected to have any control over themselves is just… ew. God I’m so articulate. (Not)

The novel brings up so many things about slavery that I never ever thought about. The way slave owners profited from women having babies. Grandma Baby Suggs (Sethe’s mother-in-law) often talks about how she didn’t know her children, or bother to know them. How the last time she saw two of her youngest daughters they didn’t even have hair in their armpits. Why love something that will be snatched away from you? Sethe is haunted by the pain of not knowing her own mother, who was out working in the field while she got the dregs of whatever a wet nurse had to offer her. When she comes to Baby Suggs after running away and finds her baby crawling, she is shocked. She says sometimes a child on a farm or plantation might not lift its head until it was 9 months… because they didn’t have enough food and weren’t strong enough to. That after the Civil War, black people weren’t really free, not if they were caught by hillbillies while trying to get to the north, and most had nowhere to go. And those that were wandered looking for family who may have been sold time and again since they last saw each other, changing last names every time they were sold. None of this was talked about in school. None of this was ever even addressed. And these horrible things are what drives Sethe’s actions. We know that she is haunted by her dead child, and the others ran away. They live in near isolation from their community, despite their house formerly being the center of it. We finally learn the reason for these things, and it’s awful. It’s the worst that could have happened and the crux of the novel.

I read these books that move me, that kinda rock the foundation, artistically, and then I come and try and turn those feelings into words. What I could say about it will never convey my experience. And so all I can say is, go and read it. It’s beautiful, it’s dark and difficult, and it shoves shit in your face. Read it with your mind open and I think you will learn some things.

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