Author: Toni Morrison
Winner: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1988; Frederic G. Melcher Book Award, 1988; Nobel Prize for Literature (awarded to author, not this particular novel), 1993
Original Publication: 1987
#223 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
Based partially on the true story of Margaret Garner, Beloved is about the aftermath of slavery in the American South, and its psychological impact on those who survived. The particular era in question is during the time when slaves were escaping to the north (Ohio, in this case), and lived in constant fear of their former owners or bounty hunters coming to return them to slavery. (See Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring that fugitive slaves be returned to their owners.)
Sethe and her 18-year old daughter, Denver, are trying to rebuild their lives after Sethe’s escape from Sweet Home plantation when Denver was in utero. Because their house is haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s dead infant daughter, Beloved, and combined with Sethe’s general paranoia, the two are friendless and rarely leave their home. We learn the story of Denver’s birth on the road north and her delivery by a white woman, and Sethe’s escape to her mother-in-law’s house in Ohio with her other three children in tow. She arrives at Baby Suggs’ house in the hopes that her husband, Halle, will join their family shortly, but he never makes it. She settles into her new life with Baby Suggs, who has managed to buy her own freedom, but cannot shake her fear that she and her children will be caught and returned to Sweet Home.
Shortly after Paul D., a slave that Sethe knew from her plantation days comes to visit, another visitor comes to the house to stay as well. Claiming that her name is Beloved, she is the same age that Sethe’s daughter would have been if she had lived, and the family takes her in. Paul D. is falling in love with Sethe, and wants to start a new family with her. When he mentions this to the neighbors, however, their horrified reactions baffle him. Paul D. comes to find out that when Sethe’s four children were babies, she saw her former owner coming up the drive to reclaim her, and she panicked and took her four children into the shed with the intent of beating them to death and killing herself in order to spare her children from a life of slavery – a life that they had never known. A neighbor stopped her before she succeeded fully, but her two-year old daughter, Beloved, did not survive. Both of her sons ran away from home in fear of her.
Meanwhile, Sethe has begun to suspect that the girl they have taken in is the ghost of her infant daughter in the flesh, come to take her revenge on her. Sethe begins spending recklessly and spoiling Beloved out of guilt, and neglecting all of her other responsibilities. Denver must overcome her fear of both Beloved, her mother, and leaving the house in order to ensure that food gets put on the table.
It’s a testament to both the author’s skill and a mother’s love that, while horrified at the prospect of killing one’s own children, one can understand Sethe’s motivation behind it, and sympathize with her lifetime of guilt. It isn’t impossible to imagine sending your children to be with God prematurely as a better alternative to sending them into a lifetime of misery and their certain deaths at the hands of cruel slave owners. The reader is further treated to passages like this:
(as Sethe is crying to Paul D. about having lost Beloved)
“She left me.”
“Aw, girl. Don’t cry.”
“She was my best thing.”
Paul D. sits down in the rocking chair and examines the quilt patched in carnival colors. His hands are limp between his knees. There are too many things to feel about this woman. His head hurts. Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
He is staring at the quilt but he is thinking about her wrought-iron back; the delicious mouth still puffy at the corner from Ella’s fist. The mean black eyes. The wet dress steaming before the fire. Her tenderness about his neck jewelry – its three wands, like attentive baby rattlers, curving two feet into the air. How she never mentioned or looked at it, so he did not have to feel the shame of being collared like a beast. Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that. He wants to put his story next to hers.
“Sethe,” he says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.”
Fun Fact: In 1998, a movie based on the novel was made, starring Oprah Winfrey as Sethe, Danny Glover as Paul D., and Thandie Newton as Beloved. The film was nominated for a number of Academy Awards, but did not win.
Bother if: I liked, if not loved, this novel. It’s necessarily intense due to the subject matter, and more than a little heartbreaking. That said, the writing is excellent, and the story is intriguing, even I felt like it was fairly easy to put down. It is beautifully written, and unlike anything I had ever read before.
Don’t Bother if: There are graphic depictions of the way slaves were treated in the south, which may be emotionally troublesome for more sensitive readers. There is also sex, rape, child abuse, murder, and of course the supernatural element of being quite literally haunted by one’s past. It’s wonderfully done, and one of the finer commentaries on the human aftermath of the slave trade that I have ever read, but it is by no means lighthearted.