Song of Solomon

Deep down in that pocket where his heart hid, he felt used. Somehow everybody was using him for something or as something. Working out some scheme of their own on him, making him the subject of their dreams of wealth, or love, or martyrdom. Everything they did seemed to be about him, yet nothing he wanted was part of it. Once he had a long talk with his father, and it ended up with his being driven further from his mother. Now he had had a confidential talk with his moth, only to discover that before he was born, before the first nerve end had formed in his mother’s womb, he was the subject of great controversy and strife. And now the one woman who claimed to love him more than life, more than her life, actually loved him more than his life, for she had spend half a year trying to relieve him of it.

I must confess that I don’t love Toni Morrison’s novels quite as much as I think I’m supposed to. I appreciated Beloved, but didn’t really get Jazz. Home is the first of her books that truly swept me away. But I keep trying, hoping for that magic that so many others experience. And I know that many people love Song of Solomon, so it seemed like a natural choice for me to try.

It was rough going at first. Milkman Dead is not an easy character to like, or to care much about, which is what really matters when it comes to book characters. He just drifts along, letting things happen to him, falling into relationships and into conflicts according to what other expect. He seems to have no will of his own. And so I spent the first half or so of this novel wondering why I was reading about this guy. The main reason I kept reading was because he was surrounded by characters with a little more oomph.

Take, for example, his aunt Pilate. Born without a navel, Pilate is a true eccentric, living life her own way, regardless of what her brother, Macon Dead, thinks of her. She stays loyal to Macon, his wife, and his children, even when they seem to see themselves as above her. Characters like Pilate, plus the general weirdness of the book, kept me reading. I wanted to figure out what was going on.

And then I started to realize that Macon’s bland passivity is part of the story. Quotes like the one at the start of this post show him as being driven by others, not developing an identity of his own. Yet he’s the center of attention. Perhaps it’s because he’s enough of a blank space that anyone can see whatever they want in him, place whatever expectations they want on him. And that’s no way for a man to live.

Eventually, Milkman is sent on a journey — and he is sent, it’s not his journey. However, it becomes his journey. As he follows his family’s path back south and backward into the past, he sheds their expectations and forms his own identity, an identity still rooted in family, but with deeper roots than those he knew. Milkman follows clues embedded in family stories to uncover where he is from, who his people are, and who he is. He sees how, over time, the stories got bent and changed, just as his grandfather’s name got changed as he journeyed north.

It’s interesting to me that the journey south is what frees Milkman. But I think it’s less about the geographical direction than the direction in time, back through his family’s history. Abandoning that history entirely left Milkman without an identity. The Dead family has sought wealth and status in Michigan but left that history behind. (It’s interesting that the person with the strongest personality, Pilate, also journeyed south at one point.)

There’s a lot more going on in this book. I was fascinated by the glimpses of magic, including the images of flight. And the life of Milkman’s sister Corinthians was a rich story in its own right. And then there are the Seven Days vigilantes. This is a rich book, in which even the names feel significant.

As I read more Morrison, I’m getting better at seeing what makes her so great. Her books are dense, and although the stories are easy enough to follow, it takes time to unearth their significance. It’s not the kind of reading I want to do every day, but it is worth doing.

I’m curious, which Toni Morrison novels would you recommend?

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8 Responses to Song of Solomon

  1. Elle says:

    I read Paradise recently and struggled with it – it’s so difficult to follow the chronology (it’s told backwards…sort of, and it’s the ‘sort of’ bit that’s tricksy). Dense is the right word; there’s much to appreciate, but it takes a lot of mulling over.

    • Teresa says:

      The timeline here was mostly straightforward, but there’s a lot going on between the lines, and that’s where (for me), the interesting material is.

  2. Jenny says:

    I recently read A Mercy and just loved it. Not quite as much as Home, but… it was so complex and rich, allowing motivations and emotions and consequences to be complicated inside the framework of slavery. I heard someone say once that she’s kind of filling in the gaps of literature where black people have been left out — playing with the darkness behind the whiteness — and that makes some sense to me.

  3. Lindsey says:

    This isn’t an author I’ve heard of before but I’m really intrigued having read your review. It certainly sounds like it takes a bit of a different approach, if you can stick with it. That can’t have been easy with such a bland main character for the first part?

  4. I loved this book but I know there’s so much I didn’t get! She is an author to read more than once. This is probably my favorite that I’ve read so far. I actually really liked Tar Baby which is one you don’t hear much about. It felt different from the others I’ve read. I’ve still got quite a few of hers left to read.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I can imagine I’ll pick up a lot more if I read this a second time. And thanks for the Tar Baby rec! You’re right–I haven’t heard it talked about much.

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