There are times when it seems as if everyone’s writing about the same topic, and you’ve had enough of reading about it, forever. The Holocaust, maybe, or slavery, or zombies, or abducted white girls, or whatever. And then you read something as tightly written, as beautiful, as smart and as intricate as Toni Morrison’s Home, and you realize that there will always be something more to say.
(Not about zombies.)
Like Marilynne Robinson’s novel of the same name, Home revisits the story of the prodigal son, though in this case there is a prodigal daughter as well. Frank Money has left the town of Lotus, Georgia, a town he always hated, to enlist in the Korean War. At the opening of the novel, he is as low as he can possibly go: drugged and strapped to a bed in a mental hospital, unsure how he got there, and missing even his shoes. All he has to his ironically lucky name is PTSD, survivor guilt, and the memory of the vague but urgent message he received about his beloved little sister Cee: “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.”
The novel follows Frank as he crosses the country from Seattle to Atlanta. It might have been a long novel because of this, a rich tapestry of Jim Crow America, just before the Civil Rights movement. Instead, Morrison chooses brief incidents and limns them vividly to show the atmosphere Frank faces now that he’s out of an integrated army: not allowed to use a public restroom; jumped by gangsters; stopped and frisked by police. Morrison also shows the kindnesses Frank receives: money from a black congregation, new clothes, a meal when he needs it — the kind of underground support that was still so necessary.
Cee, meanwhile, has reached her own lowest point. She finds work in Atlanta after her husband abandons her — good work, as a doctor’s helper. But it slowly becomes clear that this doctor, an unrepentant Confederate, is also evil: the kind of “scientist” who provided the “evidence” to hurt African-Americans throughout the years as at Tuskegee, and his medical abuse brings Cee to the point where “she be dead if you tarry.”
One of the most interesting things about this book, especially in the context of Morrison’s other novels, is her examination of masculinity. What does it mean to be a good man? Frank has memories of a ghastly burial he witnessed as a child — one he did not understand until much later — and his primary memory of the event is of horses in the field that “stood like men.” The violence and cameraderie of the war, the urge to protect his little sister — an urge that is denied when the healing women of Lotus take over the process — all of these are typically coded male behavior. How is Frank to understand himself as a man? How is Cee to understand herself as a woman: abandoned, betrayed, destroyed? Or with a new life to live, but differently than she had first envisioned it?
Morrison shows why Frank and Cee were so eager to leave Lotus in the first place: their loveless grandmother, their parents shocked into indifference by the lynching that drove them to the town. But she paints a different picture when the brother and sister come home. This is a town where deep healing is possible; where human beings can find usefulness and good work; where people both old and young can find a place. Morrison never implies that the scars of the past will vanish, or that community caring can make poverty disappear or do away with the yearning for more. But she does imply that love is action, not feeling, and that it extends to every member of society.
Perhaps the strongest indictment in this book is of the medical industry. Both Frank and Cee — he in the mental hospital, she in the wicked doctor’s hands — receive nothing but abuse at the hands of medical professionals. It is not until they arrive at home that they can begin to heal, mentally and physically: a kind of earth-based, common-sense-based healing that doesn’t trust doctors an inch. Knowing what we know now about the way minorities are often treated in the medical system, it’s a powerful part of the book.
Home is a very short novel, almost short enough to be a novella, but it is so beautiful and strong that I had to set it down several times to catch my breath. In Heller McAlpin’s NPR review, she says, “I’m not asthmatic, but there were several times when I felt I needed an inhaler or defibrillator or something to catch my breath while reading this devastating, deeply humane — and ever-relevant — book.” I wish I’d said it first, but it’s awfully well said. Highly recommended.