Toni Morrison first landed on my radar when Ta-Nehisi Coates included a quote by her on the cover of Between the World and Me. As an author, Morrison does not shy from slapping you in the face with racial commentary. Her most notable novel, Beloved*, earned her the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, and she continues to be a booming voice in discussions regarding the disenfranchisement of black America.
Beloved tackles the topic of slavery, couched in creative storytelling. The plot is based on a historically famous moment of infanticide. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that slaves who escaped to free states could be seized by their previous masters and returned to captivity. When Kentucky plantation owners apprehended former slave Margaret Garner in Ohio in 1856, Margaret chose to murder her own daughter rather than give her back over to slavery.
Morrison, inspired by the ferocity of Margaret’s love for her child as well as the moral contentiousness of her actions, adapts the event into a fictional story. In order to effectively hone in on the psychological trauma of slavery, Morrison considers the killing from multiple perspectives, including the mother, the community, the other siblings, and the dead daughter herself in the form of a ghost. The result is a chilling account of a brutal action born of an even more brutal and murderous institution.
I appreciate Morrison’s thoughtful take on a terrible history that I can’t fully comprehend. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of her writing style, and I had quite a bit of trouble navigating a sense of place within the novel. She jumps around between past, present, future, death, life, imagination, and spoken word. Additionally, she jumps around between the minds of each main character. I spent most of the time trying to orient myself to the speaker/context, and too little time grasping the intended message.
Morrison is a gifted poet, and her writing contains a rawness fitting of a population that was forced to remain vulnerable even in their legal “freedom”. When I wasn’t distracted by the jerking back and forth between surrealism, reality, and stream of consciousness, I considered her very talented. After the negatives balance the positives, Beloved levels out at 3 out of 5 camel humps.
*Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Random House, 1987. Print.