Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this book, in 1988.
I got married in 1988 and had other things to think about.
I've bumped into Toni Morrison's name and books before, but have to confess that I really didn't know anything about her work, and this is the first of her books that I have read.
Beloved takes place in post-Civil War Ohio, close to the Kentucky border. There was a population of freed/former slaves in the area even before the war. In fact, some of the white neighbors were involved in rescue and escape efforts, as well as giving assistance in the form of housing and jobs to former slaves who were beginning their lives anew.
I honestly didn't know what I was getting into when I started this book. It includes the details of some of the physical atrocities committed by slave owners, but its larger scope is the psychological effect on men and women in slavery. In the main thread of the story, the Civil War is over and slavery has been abolished. None of the characters are currently slaves, and some of them (the children of former slaves) never have been. Nevertheless, the children of former slaves are still deeply affected by the psychological impact of slavery on their parents. It reminded me of the stories I've read of the children of Holocaust survivors. Their parents' experiences also left a mark on them.
The history and experience of slavery itself is conjured up only in memory, and many of its victims are long since dead, but their stories play a part in Beloved as well. How do young men and women, who have never known any life but slavery, who were not raised by their parents, who are kept ignorant of even rudimentary knowledge--how do they cope, mentally and psychologically, with life as they know it? And if they achieve freedom, how do they put their experience--the only experience they have--behind them and move forward?
The three main characters are Sethe (a former slave) and her daughter Denver (born during her escape), as well as Paul D., another former slave from the same household as Sethe. Although many years have gone by since slavery was a part of their daily existence, it still has a hold on their minds and hearts. I never felt that sanity was a close acquaintence of any of them.
They are all haunted by the "ghosts" of the past--memories too powerful and too terrible to leave them in peace.
"Sethe," he says, "me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow."
I won't forget this book in a hurry. It is less the story of human courage in the face of adversity than it is the story of human frailty in the midst of adversity. Just being willing to face tomorrow is sometimes all there is, and it has to be enough.