Frank Money is a veteran of the Korean War, and he’s trying to return to a home he had no desire to see again. The reason? He’s received word that his sister, Cee, is dying. So Frank, battling addiction and haunted by ghosts and memories, travels from Seattle to Georgia, relying on the help of strangers.
In this short novel, Toni Morrison chronicles Frank’s journey, his memories, and Cee’s experiences. Frank and Cee spent most of their childhood in the little town of Lotus, Georgia. With parents who worked constantly, and a step-mother who treated Cee with resentment, Frank and Cee were left on their own most of the time. Eventually, Frank escaped to Korea, and Cee escaped into an ill-fated marriage. In both cases, their escapes led to new disasters.
One of the things that strikes me about this book is that, although there is tremendous suffering in its pages, the focus is more on the aftermath. We don’t witness a lot of the most vicious violence firsthand, and when we do see it, the story doesn’t linger there. It’s the pain that lingers in the characters’ bodies and minds. It’s that lingering pain that’s at the story’s center. It’s a story about the aftermath.
And sometimes, the meaning of the memory isn’t even clear. Frank tells himself an incomplete story about Korea because the full truth can’t be borne. Frank and Cee witnessed the aftermath of a horror in their childhood that they didn’t really understand until they were adults. But they knew it was a horror, and it haunted them anyway.
Although the book tells a very painful story, it’s ultimately hopeful. Much of that hope is in the Black community and how people within that community take care of each other, even when they are strangers. As Frank travels across the country, he is arrested, hospitalized, and robbed. In each case, a stranger makes sure he’s able to get back on the path to Georgia. They offer money, food, a place to sleep. One man even goes out of his way to take Frank clothes shopping. I got the sense that these people know from experience how impossible it is to get by in racist America without help, and so they’ve created among themselves an informal network of helpers. (And a formal one: There’s a reference to the Green Book, which was specifically developed to help Black travelers find friendly places to stay.)
Similarly, when Cee is injured at the hands of a doctor who used her body for unconscionable experiments, the community rallies around her, even though it’s a community she rejected. And, of course, there’s the way Frank and Cee band together, both as children and adults. And the book closes with Frank and Cee offering a final act of kindness to a stranger. This is the only way forward — to be ready to help and honor and give care when it’s needed. Sometimes that care is best given by those who know the pain. Frank is excluded from much of the care given to Cee because her pain is specific to women, but he still has a place in her healing. His place is to prepare a home, to be a home. Seeing Frank, Cee, and so many others come together in this way made this short book feel especially beautiful, a needed bit of healing during difficult times.