You protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother – a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia.Toni Morrison’s Beloved takes place some years after the end of the American Civil War, and it follows the lives of mainly two ex-slaves, Sethe and Paul D., who escaped from a plantation named Sweet Home.
This book is based on the true story of the slave Margaret Garner, and I don’t recommend doing what I did, which is looking the story up before reading the novel. While this knowledge will help one make sense of things at first, it also spoils one of the best things about this novel, which is the way in which things are slowly revealed.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that slavery was terrible. And yet “slavery was terrible” can easily become a cold, abstract fact. The horrors that are described in this novel force us to break down that fact until it no longer is cold or abstract. We need books like this to go from knowing to understanding just how terrible slavery was.
The things the characters in this book go through are beyond horrific. They are beyond most of our worse nightmares. The way Toni Morrison describes these horrors, however, is not always by giving us the straight facts. The picture she paints is diffuse, and it comes into focus gradually. We often get a character’s emotional reaction to the facts before we get the facts themselves. There is a dream-like, blurry quality to Morrison’s writing.
Beloved is a historical novel and a ghost story at the same time. It’s also one of the heaviest books I’ve read in my life. The things we gradually learn throughout the book – who Beloved is, what Sethe did, how and why – are unimaginable, and yet Toni Morrison enables us to imagine the sort of despair that could be behind something like that.
This is an uncomfortable book to read, but, exactly for that reason, a necessary book. We need books like this to keep history from becoming cold and abstract.
Other Blog Reviews:
The Inside Cover
Desert Rose Booklogue