I read Beloved in high school, and Sula in college. Both were excellent. But somewhere along the way after college I got the impression that Toni Morrison’s books were intimidating, and I shied away from them. Having read Tar Baby last year, and Song of Solomon this year, I can now say how foolish a notion that was. I was utterly captivated by Song of Solomon, and it’s something I most definitely would read again
Set mostly in an unnamed Northern city near the Great Lakes, Solomon focuses on the Dead family – father Macon, cold to his family and obsessed with acquiring rental properties; mother Ruth, desperate for affection; daughters Magdalene called Lena and First Corinthians, sheltered into spinsterhood; and our hero, “Milkman” Dead, self-centered and stifled by his father’s ambitions for him. As he grows up he’s coddled by his mother and cared for by his sisters, while his father only tries to instill in him the love of money and property. Milkman goes to his aunt, Macon’s sister, Pilate, for something deeper, hungry for connection to his family’s story. Pilate is a bootlegger, a strong, earthy, witchy woman who wants nothing to do with her brother and his “civilized” pursuits. She also was born without a navel. (!) Her granddaughter, Hagar, falls in love with Milkman, and even though they are cousins they embark on a lengthy romantic relationship.
Milkman doesn’t love Hagar, however, and he realizes he has to find a way to leave his city and his family and make a life of his own, however he has to make that happen. His father tells him that Pilate’s got a stash of gold buried in the old family land in Virginia. So he leaves Hagar bereft and unhinged, and sets off on his quest in the South.
This is where the story really came alive for me, Milkman’s journey through the South, seeking literal and, ultimately, spiritual treasure. What really happened to Milkman’s grandfather and grandmother? Is there really any gold? Will Milkman be able to dodge the wrath of his best friend-turned-enemy Guitar Bains, who is convinced that Milkman’s holding out on him? Will Milkman find a way to be his own man?
The compelling plot is enhanced by Morrison’s lyrical, beautiful writing. At times I wanted to re-read a paragraph simply because it was so jaw-droppingly good. Here’s a section from the point of view of Hagar once she’s been spurned by Milkman:
The calculated violence of a shark grew in her, and like every witch that ever rode a broom straight through the night to a ceremonial infanticide as thrilled by the black wind as by the rod between her legs; like every fed-up-to-the-teeth bride who worried about the consistency of the grits she threw at her husband as well as the potency of the lye she had stirred into them; and like every queen and every courtesan who was struck by the beauty of her emerald ring as she tipped its poison into the old red wine, Hagar was energized by the details of her mission. She stalked him. Whenever the fist that beat in her chest became that pointing finger, when any contact with him was better than non, she stalked him. She could not get his love (and the possibility that he did not think of her at all was intolerable) so she settled for his fear.
Hagar, Pilate, Ruth, Corinthians and Magdalene called Lena are interesting characters, and they engaged my empathy. But this is really Milkman’s story. I didn’t think too much of Milkman until his journey south, until he started asking questions and seeking answers, the context of his family’s dysfunction. I was fully invested in this novel, and the final chapters held me breathless with emotion and anticipation. This is truly a masterwork by a master artist.