Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, paints a stunning portrait of Black communities. Her characters, shoved to the margins by white culture, nevertheless live robustly. We meet Macon Dead (the Third), known universally as Milkman; his father Macon Dead whose fortune came from his wife’s father, a doctor, and from his own pennypinching as a landlord; Milkman’s mother Ruth, daughter of the doctor, thoroughly unhappy in her circumstances; Milkman’s aunt Pilate, younger sister of Macon, who lives with her daughter and granddaughter. Macon is not on speaking terms with these women. But when he and Pilate were children, they watched white men shoot off their father’s head as he sat on the fence of his own prospering farm awaiting their attack. 

Milkman and his best friend Guitar explore the boundaries of their world as boys, as young men, as full-fledged adults. And as those limits pinch, they push further, Milkman into his family history, Guitar into acting on behalf of their race. The WWII vets at the barbershop share their experience. “And you not going to have no ship under your command, no train to run, and you can join the 332nd if you want to and shoot down a thousand German planes all by yourself and land in Hitler’s backyard and whip him with your own hands, but you never going to have four stars on your shirt front, or even three.” 

Pilate is a social outcast – after her umbilicus dropped off, she healed with no navel. “Even a traveling sideshow would have rejected her, since her freak quality lacked that important ingredient – the grotesque. There was really nothing to see. Her defect, frightening and exotic as it was, was also a theatrical failure… Finally Pilate began to take offense... she threw away every assumption she had learned and began at zero. First off, she cut her hair… Then she tackled the problem of trying to decide how she wanted to live and what was valuable to her. When am I happy and when am I sad and what is the difference? What do I need to know to stay alive? What is true in the world?” 

The novel really sings when Milkman, in search of a fortune found and abandoned by Macon and Pilate on the run from their father’s killers, travels south from Michigan, eventually to a village in Virginia where he is invited on a coon hunt. After tramping through dark woods, falling behind his partner, he sits against a tree and just listens to the dogs and hunters off somewhere in the night. “.. the dogs spoke to the men… and the men agreed or told them to change direction or to come back. All those shrieks, those rapid tumbling barks, the long sustained yells, the tuba sounds, the drumbeat sounds, the low liquid howm howm, the reedy whistles, the thin eeeee’s of a cornet, the unh unh unh bass chords. It was all language… No, it was not language; it was what there was before language. Before things were written down. Language in the time when men and animals did talk to one another, when a man could sit down with an ape and the two converse; when a tiger and a man could share the same tree, and each understood the other; when men ran with wolves, not from or after them."

This is a beautifully written story about remarkable people – take time to read it!