Jim Cullen: Review of Toni Morrison's "Home" (Knopf, 2012)
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
Is there a better modern American historian than Toni Morrison? In novel after novel, in a career now in its fifth decade, she has emerged as the premier chronicler of our national experience. John Updike showed comparable temporal imagination; E.L. Doctorow has built a body of work of similar breadth and depth. But it's Morrison's canon -- jagged, allusive, clarified through the searing lens of race -- that seems the most consistently vivid. In its kaleidoscopic array of characters, her fiction is reminiscent of William Faulkner, but her world seems bigger, even as it shares a locus in the American South.
Though it seems unorthodox to say so, given the towering status of the Civil War-era Beloved (1987), I found Morrison's last novel, A Mercy (2008), which explored a seventeenth-century world in which slavery had yet to assume a recognizably modern shape, to be her most satisfying in its scope and the generosity of her vision. Her new novel, Home, zooms forward to the early 1950s. In the popular imagination, this is a moment whose representation veers between Eisenhower-era affluence and Cold War anxiety, both of which are discernible at the periphery of Morrison's vision. She blends them even as she captures the lingering shadow of the past in a setting that includes cotton fields and refrigerators, eugenics and situation-comedies, fellow travelers and Klansmen, all jostling in the present tense.
Home, which is a novella pumped up into novel dimensions to justify a $24 list price, is a chronicle of the (ironically) named Money family, black Texans forced by racial terror to flee to Georgia and begin unhappy new lives. The core of the family are siblings Frank and Ycidra ("Cee") whose devotion to each other sustains them amid the indifference and/or hostility of their blended, extended family. Frank leaves home to join the army, where he serves in the Korean War, an experience that leaves him with what we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome. Cee marries a lout and moves to Atlanta, where she falls under the sway of an evil doctor (there's a creepiness of this part of the story, with its echoes of the Tuskegee experiments, that's worthy of a Gothic novel). When Frank gets word that his sister is in danger, he manages to pull himself together and make a journey from Portland to Atlanta to save her. The question is whether he can, and whether they have the heart to go back home.
Home is a book studded with brutality in which the most awful violence and degradation are as endemic in a small town or on a city street as they are in a war zone. But it's also one where the irrational kindness of strangers seems plausible and hopeful, where the bonds of community can partially repair wounds and sustain lives. As usual in Morrison's fiction, the novel is broken into chapters with multiple narrators. And as usual, too, Morrison places special emphasis on the resilience of working-class African American women, though she's tart enough, and balanced enough, to make sure none of them are saints (some a good deal less than that). Just when you think she might be lapsing into sentiment, Frank's character makes a discomfiting disclosure that scrambles any easy notions of victimization and oppression.
Home is unlikely to rank at the top of Morrison's corpus; it's too slight, and too similar in structure and themes to her earlier work. But it showcases a writer at the height of her powers in evoking a moment and its historical counter-currents. And it ranks among her most readable stories. It is also, like so many of her novels, a book certain to reward re-reading: you can go Home again. And you should.
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