A couple of months ago, in this blog, there was a post about the 100 greatest novels, and how many of them had been read by the average reader. In order to improve my score, I said I would read Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. I’m very glad I volunteered: it’s a wonderful novel.
Wikipedia says this about Toni Morrison: “(born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, editor, teacher, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. The novel was adapted into a film of the same name (starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover) in 1998. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison wrote the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016 she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.”
The paragraph in Wikipedia on the early years in Toni Morrison’s life helps me understand her great facility as a black writer: “Morrison’s parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through telling traditional African American folktales and ghost stories and singing songs.” Song of Solomon is full of children’s songs, traditional folktales, ghosts, and – in today’s terms – unthinkable racism. All the principle characters have names one would never think of: Milkman, Guitar, Pilate, First Corinthians, Hagar and eccentric, engaging personalities. The novel is set in a small, poor black community in Michigan, beginning in the 1930’s; it progresses through Pennsylvania into Virginia, but always in black territory. It is the story of the development of Milkman against the background of a family whose origins are slaves and Native Americans, and whose strange history make them what they are. There are numerous tensions within the family with various historic causes; and external tensions of being well off vs having nothing; sexual tensions; and tensions arising from differing circumstances and values. Milkman’s development as a person is facilitated by his dissatisfaction with his comfortable, but pointless situation, and by his search for identity in the personalities of his fore bearers. He must learn, figuratively and mythologically, to fly.
For me, Song of Solomon was the best kind of reading experience. One learns, or perhaps in my case re-learns, the savage history of racism in America, set against a background of ‘real’ people who are flawed but nonetheless our friends. One admires their unique coping skills: songs, love, stories and tradition. One is carried from one set of circumstances, expecting the outcome, to a new, more interesting situation. The author’s inventiveness is breath-taking, and enjoyable. The writing is voluble or terse as the situation demands, and the language is appropriately unique but always descriptive. Most of all, I admire Toni Morrison as a great story-teller.