Where the Hate/Heart Is: A Review of Toni Morrison, Home
Posted September 6, 2012on:
Along with themes of race and gender relations, Toni Morrison has long been fascinated with the role of home in human happiness–and unhappiness. Her 1973 novel Sula opens with a history of a black neighborhood once known as “the Bottom” and now being bulldozed to make way for a golf course and white people. In Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, a female slave escapes a plantation with the ironic name of Sweet Home. The novel begins after she has escaped to the North with the iconic sentence: “124 was haunted,” referring to the literal and figurative ghosts that plague her new home in the supposedly “free” North. Now her new novel Home begins with a traumatized Korean War veteran with the Dickensian name of Frank Money, hating his home, which symbolizes his desolate, hopeless life.
As in several of Morrison’s books, there are multiple points of view, including: Frank, his sister Cee, his grandma Lenore, his ex-wife Lily, and a nameless narrator (presumably a psychologist). At just under 150 pages, the novel is quite short and though not overwhelmingly in depth, still manages to explore themes of race and gender relations. In particular, Home focuses on racism in the U.S. Army (one character says: “an integrated army is integrated misery”). Morrison, a native of Ohio, also debunks Northerner’s naive belief that racism in the pre-Civil Rights era was worse in the South than it was in the North. And in an incident that echoes the title, one character is prevented from buying a home in certain neighborhoods because of the color of her skin.
Beneath the history and identity politics, Home is a foray into more abstract ideas. Again and again, the novel establishes two poles –logic and illogic, consciousness and sub-consciousness, sanity and insanity, reality and fantasy — and examines the tension between them. Like many of Morrison’s protagonists, Frank, who during the war held a dying friend in his arms, harvests more than his share of repressed memories. At one point, he confronts his nameless interlocutor and says that “they” are putting thoughts in his head. Naturally, this confession combined with his severe alcoholism is a tell-tale sign of an unreliable narrator. It may also be the author reflecting on her own career of harshly judging men in her works.
Before I started this novel, I wondered why Morrison continues to write about the past. Is there not racism in the United States in 2012? Hasn’t globalization made the idea of home even vaguer and more confusing? The short answer, it seems, is that Morrison has transcended being a writer of fiction into being a specific social historian. Her most well-respected works take place in the pre-, during, and post-Civil Rights era. Born in 1931, she has lived through some of the most contentious times in human’s race relations history. The success for blacks of the Civil Rights movement simultaneously pushed the hateful further into the red. But our nation has also seen its first black President. Yet we can really only joke about the concept of “post-racial America” because such a thing will never actually exist. Race and gender are as essential to our identities as the choices we make. As long as there are differences, but will be exclusive and angry and ignorant. Morrison continues to write these stories of the past, and of ghosts, so that one day, hopefully, they will only continue to exist in fiction (“those who cannot remember the past…”).
While the tone of the book is not entirely positive, by the end it is hopeful, with the possibility that Morrison is becoming either optimistic, or just exhausted, in her older age. Still, her characters don’t just succumb to their circumstances; they take action and confront the consequences. What the reader walks away with is a sense of gratitude for always having a chance to start over (Frank is essentially given a clean slate earlier on in the novel after staying with a reverend cleverly named John Locke), that – as in Beloved and several of her other works – people who are gone and not forgotten have not forgotten us, and yes, our minds have an uncanny ability to play tricks on us. It’s safe to say that in this point in her career, it’d be hard to be disappointed by Morrison. While she may not be breaking any personal ground with this book, she does add to her canon of in depth character development and what it means to hold responsibility. Whether Morrison is exorcising the nation’s ghosts or her own, Home feels like a story that needs to be told.
After experiencing war and discovering that the North can be as unforgiving as the South, Frank begins to realize he may have been wrong about his concept of home. But the journey it takes to come to these truths is never easy. It takes great physical and emotional strength to fight the rats, the ghosts and the nightmares that try to drag you down along the way.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer. His recent book reviews include A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, In My Home There Is No Sorrow by Rick Bass and Hot Pink by Adam Levin. Although he lives in Chicago, his fall travel agenda includes New York, Israel, and China.