This haunting, slender novel is a kind of tiny Rosetta Stone to Toni Morrison’s entire oeuvre.
“Home” encapsulates all the themes that have fueled her fiction, from the early novels “Sula” and “The Bluest Eye,” through her dazzling masterwork, “Beloved,” and more recent, less persuasive books like “Love” and “Paradise”: the hold that time past exerts over time present, the hazards of love (and its link to leaving and loss), the possibility of redemption and transcendence.
Once again we are introduced to characters who must choose between the suffocating but sustaining ethos of small-town life and the temptations and pitfalls of the wider world. Once again we are made to see the costs and consolations of caring too much — for a family member, a lover or a friend.
“Home” is the story of Frank Money, who joins the Army as a ticket out of stifling Lotus, Ga. — where “there was no future, just long stretches of killing time” — and his return there after his service in the Korean War, on a mission to rescue his younger sister, Cee. It is the story of a man who has witnessed the atrocities of war and the deaths of his two best friends, a man who has terrible flashbacks to the war and savage impulses of his own that he finds difficult to master.
Whereas “Beloved” mythologized its characters’ stories, lending their experiences the resonance of a symphony or an opera, “Home” is a lower-key chamber piece, pitched somewhere between straight-up naturalism and the world of fable. In these pages Ms. Morrison eschews the fierce Faulknerian prose and García Márquez-like flights of surrealism that animated some of her earlier novels, adopting a new, pared-down style that enables her to map the day-to-day lives of her characters with lyrical precision.
She describes Cee watching four barnyard swallows gather on the lawn outside her window, “politely equidistant from one another,” peck-searching through blades of drying grass, then all four, suddenly “as if summoned,” flying up to a pecan tree. And she captures Cee’s small-town-girl amazement when she visits a big city — Atlanta — for the first time, “ogling water coming from the turn of a spigot,” streetlights “shining longer than the sun and as lovely as fireflies,” women “in high heels and gorgeous hats trotting to church two, sometimes three times a day.”
Like earlier Morrison characters, the people in this story live with the daily reality of prejudice — not with the impossible ordeals of slavery, as in “Beloved,” but with the bigotry, injustice and violence that endured in the 1950s. Many restaurants and restrooms in parts of the country are still segregated, and during his travels home Frank is subjected to a random police search outside a shoe store.
When Frank was a child, his family was run out of Bandera County, Texas — they had to abandon their land, their crops, their livestock — and were forced to move in with relatives in Georgia. His father took a job as a fieldworker, and his mother picked cotton in the day and swept lumber shacks at night. Memories of their expulsion from Texas will haunt Frank the rest of his life.
“You could be inside, living in your own house for years,” Frank remembers, “and still, men with or without badges but always with guns could force you, your family, your neighbors to pack up and move — with or without shoes.” Residents were told 24 hours or else — “ ‘else’ meaning ‘die.’ ” One elderly man named Crawford sat on his porch and refused to move:
“He was beaten to death with pipes and rifle butts and tied to the oldest magnolia tree in the county — the one that grew in his own yard.” Some of his fleeing neighbors returned to untie him and bury him beneath his beloved tree; one of them “told everyone who would listen that Mr. Crawford’s eyes had been carved out.”
Since returning from Korea, Frank has suffered frightening episodes in which he is overwhelmed with gruesome hallucinations. He has done a stint in a mental hospital, and nearly kills a man at a train stop on the way back to Georgia.
Earlier, after returning from the war, Frank had met Lily, an ambitious seamstress who wanted to open her own dressmaking shop. She offered Frank a respite from his nightmares, but even on good days, he often sank into lethargic stupors. Lily grew impatient with his inability to cope with “the small mechanics of life” — dealing with unpaid bills, frequent gas leaks, mice, quarreling neighbors — and infuriated by his lack of enthusiasm for her dream of buying a house of her own.
This divide between those who yearn for a better life and those trapped in a deadening struggle for mere survival is a familiar one in Morrison novels. Many of her characters are so beaten down by the burdens of poverty or familial dysfunction — heightened by the historical weight, in some cases, of slavery and racial persecution — that they seem trapped in a slough of passivity and despond, content with, or resigned to, a life of mere endurance. Others are propelled — by love, by ambition or by the centrifugal forces of history — to seek an identity or a place in the world beyond.
As a teenager Frank had been one of those seeking to reinvent himself, which is why he and his two best friends joined the Army. But after the horrors of the war, he too has sunk into an angry crouch, worn down by the exigencies of daily life and frightened of his own violent nature. It is only a cry for help from his sister, who has gone to work for a sinister doctor near Atlanta, that rouses him into action.
Although Ms. Morrison’s portraits of this evil physician and Frank and Cee’s monstrous grandmother Lenore verge on fairy tale caricature, this economical tale is largely free of the didactic writing that turned “Paradise” and “Love” into brittle, cartoonish exercises, pitting women against women, women against men, young against old.
Instead Ms. Morrison has found a new, angular voice and straight-ahead storytelling style that showcase her knowledge of her characters, and the ways in which violence and passion and regret are braided through their lives, the ways in which love and duty can redeem a blighted past.
QG WD staffers find the story hypnotic, if you have enjoy ‘Home’ by Toni Morrison, comment here, we’d love to read your reviews!