In which Netty encounters 19th-century American slavery … and a girl ghost called Beloved …

December 23, 2012

ImageIn my various travels to the United States throughout the years, I once did a fairly extensive road trip into the deep south, where I was surprised and taken aback by the legacy of the black/white divide, even in the 21st century. There, I drove through all-black towns, and once or twice unwittingly found myself in places where I was the only Caucasian, where the look of disdain – or worse – on the faces of the locals seemed to say, “What you doing here, white girl?” On every occasion this tension was diffused as soon as I opened my mouth, as soon as they heard my accent. You could actually see it melt away from their faces. “Jesus,” I thought to myself at the time. You don’t think about it, it doesn’t even register, and then suddenly and unexpectedly it slaps you in the face – hard. And you realise that these scars run very, very deep.

Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, itself a Pulitzer Prize winner, is dedicated to “Sixty million and more” – a reference to the African-Americans who died in slavery. Morrison’s fifth novel, which is set in post-Civil War 1873, was inspired by the true story of a young mother named Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856, fleeing to the “free” state of Ohio. Under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, owners could recapture slaves regardless of state borders; Garner murdered her two-year-old daughter and attempted to kill her other children rather than let them be recaptured by her erstwhile owners.

As the novel opens, ex-slave Sethe is living with her teenage daughter Denver and the vengeful ghost of her deceased two-year-old, known only as Beloved – the name on her tombstone – in the house at 124 Bluestone Rd, Cincinnati, Ohio. The family lives in the house thanks to the largesse of the Bodwin siblings, members of a white Cincinnati society family long and publicly opposed to slavery. Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs has recently passed away; her sons Howard and Buglar, spooked by the poltergeist, have deserted the house and their family. Sethe, then heavily pregnant with Denver, escaped the Kentucky plantation of Sweet Home 18 years previously, after the death of its benevolent owner Mr Garner ushered in the heavy-handed reign of its new owners. Her husband Halle went missing in the same operation, never to be heard from again and presumed dead, but her two sons and toddler daughter successfully precede their mother on the path to freedom. Thanks to the kindness of a white girl called Amy, who acts as a midwife at Denver’s birth, and Stamp Paid, a negro who assists escaping slaves across the Ohio River, Sethe and her newborn daughter arrive sick and weak but alive at Baby Suggs’ door to rejoin the family.

Fast-forward 18 years, and Paul D., one of the six men who were slaves at Sweet Home along with Sethe, turns up unannounced on 124’s doorstep. He promptly moves in, starts a relationship with Sethe, under the disapproving eye of Denver, and scares off the poltergeist – much to the chagrin of the teenager, who has come to regard the spirit as a companion and comforting presence. But as the three settle into a fresh routine, a mysterious young woman who calls herself Beloved suddenly appears on the veranda of 124. All three members of the household become obsessed with Beloved, which plays itself out in distinctly different ways. Only once all the cards are laid out on the table, and the story comes full circle, can these characters attain true acceptance of the sins of their intertwined pasts and finally move on with their lives – the burden omnipresent, but the pain slowly receding.

The novel’s structure is non-linear, which I considered very much one of its strengths; the various strands of Sethe’s and Paul D’s back stories are interwoven, and the complete picture only comes into focus once each is fully untangled. Morrison is adept at subtly conveying the most shocking aspects of slavery without neutering their brutality or horror. She is a skilful and sublime writer; the beauty of her prose is striking, its language remarkable, the empathy bleeds through the pages.

Interestingly, Morrison and Nadine Gordimer (July’s Reading Challenge author) – both of whom deal in telling the starkly painful stories of their people and their countries – are the writers who have probably impressed me most this year; Andy’s reaction to both was a little less effusive. Race and gender have always been hot-button topics; it takes truly great writers to create stories that make sense of their myriad threads without descending into sensationalism. The ease with which both Morrison and Gordimer accomplish this is nothing short of remarkable. And I feel strongly that both authors deserve the time and effort it takes to work their way through their respective ouvres; I certainly hope to be doing so.

One final thing. Beloved was made into a film, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. I’ve made a point of seeing the movie adaptations of many of the Reading Challenge books after the fact, but my anti-Oprah bias means I won’t be in a hurry to seek this one out. Apparently Winfrey is actually not too bad in it; apparently Greenland is not too bad a country, but that doesn’t mean I ever want to go there.

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