Sunday, August 17, 2008

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Today I met with the public library book club for the last installment of the Banned Book Series they were putting on. This month we read Beloved by Toni Morrison. While I thought the book was beautifully written and heartbreaking to read, I could definitely see why parents would challenge this book as part of school curricula.

Even as an adult I found the mistreatment of humans to be chilling and difficult to get through. That and the mention of bestiality and a couple of scenes with sexual abuse were shocking. However, I feel the reason I was so uncomfortable with these scenes as they played out in the book was that these stories were taken from a very real history of slavery in the United States. Today it's unimaginable, but it was a reality for many people only 150 years ago in this country.

Toni Morrison got the idea for writing Beloved when she came across the true story of an escaped slave who killed her own daughter to keep her from being taken back into slavery. She wrote briefly about the woman at first, but was then encouraged to build upon that story. And from that came Beloved.

Beloved is the tale of Sethe, an escaped slave who is haunted by the memory of her baby girl. Sethe escaped while pregnant with her fourth child, and shortly after birth her owner shows up with the Sheriff to take her back. But before he is able to lay a hand on her, she gathers her four children in the barn and attempts to kill them all in an effort to save them from a life of slavery. She is only successful in killing her third child, whose tombstone reads nothing more than "Beloved" because Sethe couldn't afford to have a real inscription etched into the rock.

As the book proceeds we are taken back through time to see what led Sethe to escape. We also meet up with others from her past and we watch as her youngest daughter, the one she birthed during her escape to freedom, grow up in a world where freedom no longer exists but continues to haunt those who lived through it and the Civil War. And we also see the incarnation of Beloved come back to haunt Sethe.

This book is one I find fairly difficult to explain well. I thought it was beautifully written and it was an interesting story that kept my attention throughout. I particularly liked the time period because it shows the transition caused by the Civil War. It was a time where people saw a lot of change and for many it must have been a difficult thing to deal with. I think this book conveyed that predicament well. I also appreciated Morrison's decision to show that not all white people were cruel toward slaves during that time period.

I thought I'd share one of my favorite passages from the book as well, just so you can get a taste of the writing. This excerpt is found on page 89, just after the birth of Sethe's fourth child, Denver, which she birthed during her escape to freedom:

Spores of bluefren growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river's edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects - but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future. And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one - will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself.

This book can be difficult to understand at times. In fact, many people at the book club meeting said they didn't finish it because they found it too confusing. I, too, found it confusing at first, but if you persevere Morrison explains things more fully. And it's definitely worth the read.

Check out other book bloggers posts about this book:
Desert Rose


Kim L said...

After I read The Bluest Eye I learned that Morrison is an author I need to take in small doses. She writes beautifully, but the subject matter is more than a bit disturbing at times.

Laura said...

I haven't read any books by Morrison, but I actually own Beloved. I've always heard that they are difficult to read, so I've been a bit intimidated. From your review, it sounds like it is a worthwile read! I generally really like reading anything in the Civil War time period, so maybe I'll have to move this book up on my TBR list!

Nymeth said...

I'm with Kim, she works better for me in small doses. I like reading her books slowly. But she writes beautiful, and I think Beloved is a must read.

Anonymous said...

I read Beloved as part of my English senior seminar, and it's a book I'm glad I didn't read by myself. It was really helpful to have class discussions to talk about what was going on with the plot and characters, and I think it made me understand the book a lot better. I'm not sure I can say I loved the book, but it's one that I feel good knowing I read and think I understand :)


DeSeRt RoSe said...

I linked to your review :)

here is mine

Sandra said...

I recently read and reviewed A Mercy too. Interesting that you suggest persevering in reading Morrison. I advised that people read it slower than their usual pace for fiction in order to get the full sense of the language. You're right, in the end the story is worth it.

Sandra said...
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