Monday, May 17, 2010

Beloved - Toni Morrison

How do you review a book that won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and is written by a giant of American letters. This is a daunting task, books have been written about Beloved and the story remains a seminal piece of writing. It is however my book group's choice for this month and, as it has been my last read, I will try to do it justice.
Beloved is the story of Sethe a slave on a farm in Kentucky. There are five other slaves on the farm all of whom determine to escape when their living and working conditions deteriorate. Sethe makes it to the home of her mother-in-law in Cincinnati who is a freed slave, freed on payment by her son of his labour. Twenty eight days after arriving and living a life of liberty men arrive to retrieve Sethe. Rather than allowing the men to take her and her children Sethe takes the children to the woodshed and tries to kill them, she succeeds in killing only one child, her eldest girl. Sethe is sent to prison with her other newborn daughter Denver, her two sons run away. Sethe is ultimately released from prison with her surviving daughter and moves back into her mother-in-laws house. The events of the book take place 20 years later in and around 1873.
In an interview for 'Race Today Review' Toni Morrison said that her main aim in writing Beloved was 'to bear witness to a history that is unrecorded, untaught in mainstream education.' It is certainly true that whilst I know what slavery was and am also aware of some of the events surrounding the abolition of slavery, it is clear from reading this book that I did not really know about slavery. What impacted me most about this book were the small details Morrison provides of the conditions and treatment of these human beings.
During the course of the book Sethe and the other slaves on Sweet Home Farm (a misnomer if ever there was one!) undergo rape, beatings and the selling of one of their number. We learn that slaves were regarded as animals, which legitimated the way they were treated. Men and women were put to stud and women were valuable because they were capable of reproducing and thus providing new free labour. The children of slaves were regarded as assets that could be sold and one of the themes of this book is the way that family relationships and bonds were destroyed by the selling of human beings. We learn that it was dangerous for slaves to love to much because that love could be sold or destroyed on the whim of another, thus they only loved a little.
We also learn the penalties for a slave that runs away. Of the five slaves that ran from Sweet Farm, only two survived, Sethe and Paul D. One slave was shot, an attempt to burn another alive failed and he was shot, a third was unhinged by witnessing the rape and beating of his wife (Sethe) and his outcome remains unknown. What happens to Paul D after he runs and is captured provides details of the oppression and suffering that put into context Sethe's extreme response to being recaptured, a response that is based on several actual cases of infanticide amongst slave women.

But who is Beloved? Perhaps the central question in this book. Sethe is literally haunted by the ghost of the child she killed. When Beloved appears on Sethe's doorstep Sethe believes that she is the reincarnation of her dead daughter and Denver believes she is her sister but by the end of the novel none of the characters can remember Beloved with any clarity. Is Beloved real or just an incarnation of Sethe's guilt?
It is an entirely different thing knowing something on an intellectual level and being shown and involved in the suffering of others. Morrison has managed to bring the reality of slavery, the human as object, to life on the page. She has shown us what it is to be owned and how the human mind can so easily twist and reclassify to justify anything. As I have said previously, there have been books written about this book and it is possible to write pages on the multiple levels that this book works at - but this blog is not the place for those pages. Suffice to say that this is an important, near perfect work of fiction.
This book is dedicated to 'The Sixty Million and more' being those slaves that died on the voyage from Africa to the American continent - this novel is dedicated to the dead.

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