Friday, August 24, 2012

Historical Fiction: Home by Toni Morrison

As five months ago, but whatever...I am reviewing Toni Morrison's latest novel, Home. I have yet to read a book by her that doesn't touch me in some way, even if it doesn't turn out to be my new favorite book. I knew no matter what, I was in for some hard truths. But hard or not, they need to be said.

The Situation: Frank Money is a veteran of the Korean War, trying to pull his life together while healing from both physical and mental scars. He's resolved not to return back to his hometown of Lotus, Georgia, which he had always hated, and finds a wonderful woman in Lily. Lotus is filled with memories of a hard childhood. In fact, his hatred of the town is one of the main reasons he ran headlong into service in the army with his two best friends. All that is left there are what he believes are discontented people, two of which are his grandparents: the harsh Lenore and the largely useless Salem. His sister long moved away, and both of his parents died within months of each other. The two friends he joined the army with were killed in battle, so they wouldn't be returning either. Frank is all too ready to call somewhere else home.

The Problem: The war, along with whatever damage was done during his childhood, has left Frank a broken and disturbed man. Despite Lily's best efforts, he remains distant, unpredictable, and most of the time, incredibly drunk. As Frank continues to be haunted by memories of the war, his relationship with Lily discintegrates. And when Frank receives a letter that his sister, Cee, will be dead if he doesn't come get her, and soon, without much thought, he leaves his incredibly tense life with Lily, and heads to Atlanta to retrieve his sister. And although it is the last place he never wanted to go, the journey eventually leads him back to Lotus.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that takes place after slavery, but during the time before, during, and after the Korean War. It is still a time of segregation and extreme racism, but slavery has long ended. Here, Morrison explores not only the lives of black men and women in the south, but also the possible plight of many black men who served in the armed services. Frank continues to be haunted by both what he saw and did in the war. It is what seems to fuel his alcoholism, and it makes life after the war very difficult for him to navigate. Cee, being an uneducated black woman in the south, is the result of a lack of parental involvement from parents who had to work tirelessly for their family, and the constant rebuke and criticism of a mean grandmother, which the narrator asserts is the worst thing a little girl could ever have. But Morrison makes sure to point out that not all of the uneducated black women of the south ended up victims. Many are strong figures in the community who are more than capable of taking care of themselves. They have an unwavering faith in Jesus, and come to the aid of anyone who needs it.

Morrison also introduces the bio-social movement known as eugenics - the use of practices aimed at "improving" the genetic composition of the planet. It sounds way more positive than it actually is though. Hitler was into it....and that is probably all I need to say about it (seriously, Wikipedia it). Turns out one of Cee's employers is a fan, but being uneducated, she doesn't quite understand what her boss is up to. 

My Verdict: While it is not my favorite Morrison book by a long shot (The Bluest Eye still wears that crown), it still has Morrison's compelling voice and lyrical language. She is one of few writers who has the ability to make me react out loud while I am reading. And I would absolutely love to take some sort of master class from her in how to develop characters, even ones that aren't on the page for very long. And like most of her novels, there is some tough stuff in here that is hard to read through, but it all feels necessary and that it has a place in the book. I don't think I have ever felt that a shocking event she has chosen to include was thrown in there just for the shock value. Every painful situation and harsh truth is there for a reason, a good reason. I think I would have liked more story and not so much introspection. But otherwise, definitely worth the read.

Favorite Moment: When Miss Ethel tells Cee, "Don't let Lenore or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no evil doctor decide who you are. That's slavery." Amen. Also, when the women of Lotus tell her "You good enough for Jesus. That's all you need to know."

Favorite Character: I would have to choose Miss Ethel. She really only shows up near the end of the novel, but she is a woman who makes her presence felt. 

Recommended Reading: Song of Solomon is another excellent choice by the Nobel Prize winning author. Actually, I don't know why I say that because I am sure any of her books, even the ones I haven't read, would be well worth most people's time. But I pick Song of Solomon in this review because of the incredible characters, both the good and the bad ones. 

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