Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved by Toni Morrison, published in 1987, is set after the American Civil War (1861–1865). The novel is a tribute to all those whose lives were fractured by slavery and the book’s epigraph reads “Sixty Million and more,” dedicated to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade. Beloved won a number of prestigious literary prizes; the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988), the American Book Award (1988), the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1988), the National Book Critics Circle Award (1987), and the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award (1988).
In Morrison’s acceptance speech of the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award she noted:
“There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby” honouring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States. “There’s no small bench by the road,” she continued. “And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”
According to wikipedia her remarks inspired the Toni Morrison Society to begin to install benches at significant sites in the history of slavery in America. “The New York Times reported July 28, 2008, that the first “bench by the road” was dedicated July 26 on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, which served as the place of entry for approximately 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the United States.”
Beloved is said to have been inspired by the story of African-American slave Margaret Garner who temporarily escaped slavery by fleeing to Ohio in 1856 and who then killed her own daughter to prevent her having to go back into slavery when a group of people came to retrieve her. This novel’s main character is Sethe who has also fled slavery to Ohio and similarly when people show up to retrieve her she kills her daughter and tries to kill her other three children before being returned to a life a slavery. The story is about Sethe, her remaining children, and a woman believed to be Beloved, the baby she killed, which haunts them in their home in Cincinnati years later.
“Sethe is an escaped slave in post-Civil War Ohio. Her body is scarred from the atrocities of her white owners, but it’s her memories that really torture her: she killed her 2-year-old daughter, Beloved, so the child would never know the sufferings of a life of servitude. But in Morrison’s novels the present is never safe from the past, and Beloved returns as an angry, hungry ghost. Sethe must come to terms with her, exorcise her, if she ever wants to move forward and find peace. Rich with historical, political and above all personal resonances, written in prose that melts and runs with the heat of the emotion it carries, Beloved is a deeply American, urgently important novel that searches for that final balance between grief, anger and acceptance.” (Grossman from TIME)
You may be wondering how the supernatural element of this novel plays out as I did. I think the best way to describe it is through the words of Margaret Atwood in her review for the New York Times:
“The supernatural element is treated, not in an ”Amityville Horror,” watch-me-make-your-flesh-creep mode, but with magnificent practicality, like the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw in ”Wuthering Heights.” All the main characters in the book believe in ghosts, so it’s merely natural for this one to be there. As Baby Suggs says, ”Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband’s spirit was to come back in here? or yours? Don’t talk to me. You lucky.” In fact, Sethe would rather have the ghost there than not there. It is, after all, her adored child, and any sign of it is better, for her, than nothing.”
I remember reading Wuthering Heights very well for its haunting tale so I am intrigued to read this novel. Have you read Beloved? Share your thoughts with us.