By Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf
Home, Toni Morrison's latest novel, is about both a haven and the forgotten. Frank Money is the only one of three childhood friends to survive their battles in Korea. Back in the States, Frank is battling demons and survivor guilt. He's always been the strong one, taking care of his little sister Cee. Now he needs help from others to try to make it back to her when he hears that she is near death and needs to be rescued.
His journey back to being the kind of man who can rescue his sister is both physical and spiritual. Frank travels a reverse Underground Railroad, finding refuge at a church after waking up in a mental hospital and escaping. As he travels home, the reader learns of how he and Cee grew up, how she got out of a backwoods place smaller than a town and where she ended up. Also revealed is how Frank has been fighting to hold on and not give up, but his war was hardly a good one. He is the only one who survived. And for what?
Morrison's short novel is tightly written, weaving in and out of points along the plot, themes, tropes and characters. It is a marvel to be studied and wondered at. But it also is a moving story of how African-Americans have been treated in their own country and how these individual characters react to what other people do to them. Frank and Cee have been victimized but are not victims.
After serving his country, Frank doesn't have anything except a medal. It's the only thing that keeps him from being arrested for the crime of being on the street and black. Cee thinks she has found the most wonderful employer in the world, but the white doctor she works for is killing her with his eugenics study. That the horror of what this "big-hearted doctor" named Beauregard is doing to Cee is not spelled out does not make it any less terrifying. The realization that the kind of thinking demonstrated by this ultimately cowardly man flourishes still today is even more terrifying, just as knowing the casual bigotry Frank encounters from white cops is seen is today's "stop and frisk" is, at best, disheartening.
Frank drank and found a strong woman to use as an anchor for a time. She is both similar to and the opposite of the grandmother who took in Frank, Cee, their parents and an uncle when they were forced to flee Texas (Cee was born on the road).
That grandmother, Lenore, is cold and cruel. Her active dislike of Cee is one of the reasons they both fled Lotus, Georgia, as soon as they could -- Frank to the Army and Cee running off with the first half-way grown man who wanted her. Lenore is like Miss Havisham without an Estrella to control and mentally abuse. She resents that she was able to use the money raised from selling her late husband's filling station (he was murdered, guilty of the crime of being black) but, instead of enjoying her life, she had to open her home to the family of her second husband. In contrast, Frank seeks shelter for a spell with Lily, a woman who has scrimped and saved enough to dream of owning a home and a business. When Frank leaves, she doesn't regret his going but there is not the sense that she resented the time she spent opening her heart and home to him. She just has other, better things to do now.
Many small actions reveal the true nature of the characters involved in the lives of Frank and Cee. These moments are powerful, and far more revealing, than the work of many authors who take pages and pages of tell, not show, to portray characters. The portraits work as individual portrayals, but they also combine to show the scope of what people can be capable of doing.
And, as with much of Morrison's work, there are ghosts. The first is one Frank sees on the train while trying to get home to Cee. It's a man in a zoot suit. A later appearance tells the reader that Frank is truly starting to heal. His physical journey has ended, but there is the implication his spiritual journey will continue. The quiet healing that takes place after the climax of the plot's action may leave some readers expecting more. But I thought it wasn't needed. Morrison was interviewed by Charlie Rose on the CBS morning program earlier this year and acknowledged she is stripping her fiction down as much as she can. A revelation late in the novel, and the way the last sections fit in tightly with the beginning, make more unnecessary.
Another ghostly figure that appears is Frank himself. Most of the novel is told in third-person omniscient. Frank at one point addresses that narrator. So when the revelation occurs, it's could be considered a surprise or, instead, the harvest of a seed planted in that passage. Frank, addressing the narrator, puts a different spin on an event that happened when the train stopped. A couple got off the train and came back bloodied. According to the narrative, the woman will be beat up by the man later because she shamed him for coming to his rescue. But Frank says differently:
Earlier you wrote about how sure I was that the beat-up man on the train to Chicago would turn around when they got home and whip the wife who tried to help him. Not true. I didn't think any such thing. What I thought was how he was proud of her but didn't want to show how proud he was to the other men on the train. I don't think you know much about love.
As an example of how Morrison weaves so many things together, at another stage of his train journey Frank gets off the train for a walk and sees two women fighting while a man, presumably a pimp, watches them. He attacks the man and the women are angry about that. A person in power forcing others to fight comes up again in the story, and is tied to the way that Frank has always tried to protect Cee.
Throughout this tight story, Morrison remembers the forgotten. There are vets like Frank, himself a decorated veteran of that most forgotten of wars, Korea. There are victims of eugenics and other experiments undertaken on African-Americans without their knowledge or informed consent. There are domestic workers. There are ignored children. There are women alone. There are tiny, tiny towns where work is the only thing that matters. Morrison gives all of them a voice. And it's one that often is poetic. Frank's description of Lotus (a name with its own conotations of time spent outside regular time), does more in two pages to bring to life the dull hopelessness of a dead-end existence:
If not for my two friends I would have suffocated by the time I was twelve. They, along with my little sister, kept the indifference of parents and the hatefulness of grandparents an afterthought. Nobody in Lotus knew anything or wanted to learn anything. Nobody in Lotus knew anything or wanted to learn anything. It sure didn't look like anyplace you'd want to be. Maybe a hundred or so people living in some fifty spread-out rickety houses. Nothing to do but mindless work in fields you didn't own, couldn't own, and wouldn't own if you had any other choice. ... Could marbles, fishing, baseball, and shooting rabbits be reasons to get out of bed in the morning? You know it wasn't.
The contrast in attitude about work between Frank as a young boy and the women of Lotus is markedly different:
There was no excess in their gardens because they shared everything. There was no trash or garbage in their homes because they had a use for everything. They took responsibility for their lives and for whatever, whoever else needed them. The absence of common sense irritated but did not surprise them. Laziness was more than intolerable to them; it was inhuman. Whether you were in the field, the house, your own backyard, you had to be busy. Sleep was not for dreaming; it was for gathering strength for the coming day. ... Mourning was helpful but God was better and they did not want to meet their Maker and have to explain a wasteful life. They knew He would ask each of them one question: "What have you done?"
This underlying belief is the foundation of what will heal Frank and Cee. As Cee is told by one of the wise women:
Look to yourself. You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you. Seed your own land. You young and a woman and there's serious limitations in both, but you a person too. Don't let Lenore or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no devil doctor decide who you are. That's slavery. Somewhere inside you is that free person I'm talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.
The search for home in this novel shows there is the potential to do some good in the world, even by those who have been broken and who have been ignored or forgotten. Morrison does not have to spell out what that good will be, but showing the first steps Cee and Frank take toward doing their good as they heal makes for a strong argument that the wise woman of Lotus is right.
©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission