In honor of her birthday tomorrow, I decided to cover Toni Morrison's Sula. I have read many of Morrison's books, old and new. Sometimes I was forced to for a class, and then there are ones, like Sula, that I read on my own. Whether I was forced or I volunteered, I was never disappointed, and I am always ready for a Morrison book recommendation.
The Situation: It's 1922 in Medallion, Ohio and twelve year-old Nel and Sula have become fast friends. Soon, they are often thought of and seen as one person, their bond is that close. Where one ends the other begins. They're both poor, black, smart, and come from homes where the mothers are less than nurturing. Living in a community known as the Bottom, Nel and Sula grow up navigating life as a minority in a town and time where the majority has no issue letting their hatred and prejudices be known. Nel must also deal with a mother who is not shy about her displeasure over her daughter's physical appearance. And Sula deals with a mother who admits to loving her children, but not liking them.
The Problem: Nel and Sula will stay close friends until ten years after Nel's marriage, when Sula comes back to town and the unthinkable happens. Nel's life will change forever, but Sula's will remain the same, even after she becomes a social pariah in the Bottom and it is clear that most everyone would prefer if she were not around. It seems Sula is destined to follow the same path as her mother, who died in a tragic fire years earlier when she was only a girl. As strong-willed as ever, Sula keeps her path if for no other reason than that it is hers and she has the freedom to choose it, though it may lead her to a tragic end.
Genre, Themes, History: Initially published in 1973, I gave this the label of classic fiction and can now add it to my shelf next to the other Morrison novels I have been able to read. Once again Morrison explores the complicated matter of growing up black in post antebellum America. Even though Nel and Sula do not live in the south, which is commonly acknowledged as being openly hostile and dangerous for black people in the early 20th century, it seems the northern state of Ohio was not much better. Black people were still made to occupy the least desirable land in a city, regularly harassed by cops, and often had a hard time finding work for a decent wage (I could go into how times really haven't changed all that much, but that is a rant for a different post). Morrison's story is full of young black men who leave their families, not much caring about the destruction they leave in their path, while single black women have no problem sleeping with someone else's husband, and the husbands have no problem sleeping with someone who is not their wife. With a string of strong female characters - from Nel and Sula, to Nel's mother Helene, Sula's mother Hannah, and also Sula's grandmother Eva - a story is told that illustrates how strong women can be when they have no choice, and how independent and strong-willed they can be even when they do. But it also shows how one generation can heavily influence the next, even when there is a desire to do things differently from those who came before.
My Verdict: As usual, Morrison does not disappoint or fail to both shock and surprise. Stories about black people in America during the 1920s and 1930s can easily become depressing or maddening, and while Sula certainly had moments of both, it was also engaging, and even exciting, while also being heartbreaking and sad. Much like Beloved, there are moments of intense tragedy, moments that would make most wonder how anyone can do such a thing, especially to family. But without saying too much, or describing too much, the reasons for Morrison's characters come through clearly, and though condoning such actions is impossible, dismissing them somehow seems like an easy solution, despite their full horror. It is this sort of complexity that Morrison has always been so good at, and Sula simply proves this yet again.
Favorite Moment: There are two fires in this novel, and while both end in tragedy and are unbelievably horrible, only Morrison can write about such things and make a reader feel sympathy for the ones who caused them, or even the ones who stood by and watched them burn.
Favorite Character: Eva is Sula's grandmother, and manages to hold herself and her family together after her husband leaves her for another woman. She then raises two more generations, as well as a steady stream of children and boarders who filter through her large house, before eventually becoming senile (or so it seems) in a home for senior citizens.
Favorite Quote: "The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well, but not despair, and they didn't stone sinners for the same reason they didn't commit suicide - it was beneath them."
Recommended Reading: My favorite Morrison novel is still The Bluest Eye, though to me, it may also be her saddest.