Book 1: Beloved



“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Dates read: October 6-October 11, 2015

Rating: 10/10

Awards/Lists: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, American Book Award, Time's All-Time 100 Novels, NY Times Best Books of the Year, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Newsweek's Top 100 Books, 501 Must Read Books

I grew up in a small town in southeast Michigan full of white people. In my graduating class of over 300, I can think of four people of color. Slavery and Jim Crow were things we learned about in sterile classrooms, that happened a long time ago and far away.

I went to school at the University of Michigan, where I experienced cultural diversity that I'd never known before. My friends were Indian, Jewish, Persian, Chinese...but it wasn't until I went to law school at the University of Alabama that I started to have friends that were black. And race relations in the South were an eye opener for someone that had lived in what's now pretty obviously some odd little bubbles: first of homogeneity, and then a bastion of progressive politics.

I've read African-American lit before, obviously...Native Son, The Color Purple, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Bluest Eye, 12 Years A Slave. But with the possible exception of the last one on that list, none really drove home the harrowing legacy of slavery quite as viscerally as this one.

Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave who lives in Ohio with her teenage daughter, Denver, in isolation in a house haunted by a baby ghost. When Paul D, a former slave who was on the same plantation as Sethe, arrives on her doorstep, everything begins to change. Paul D banishes the baby ghost, but just as things start to settle into something resembling peaceful, a strange young woman named Beloved appears outside Sethe's house and insinuates herself into the family to disastrous effect.

The story switches back and forth in time, from Sethe's young womanhood on the plantation to where the story began, even as the present storyline progresses. Horrors only lightly hinted at in the beginning develop fully as Beloved begins to assert her control, showing how Sethe and Denver ended up alone together in that haunted house to begin with. Beloved herself becomes more than just a mysteriously powerful young woman, breaking the people around her down from the inside, she becomes symbolic of the monstrous nature of slavery itself. Sethe, Paul D, and Denver might be "free", but the pernicious legacy of slavery is inescapable.

I found myself wondering as I was reading the book if Toni Morrison had read any Eastern European Jewish folklore, for Beloved reminded me of nothing so much as a dybbuk. True to a kind of folklore style, the novel relies heavily on magical realism, which isn't usually my favorite style of writing (I love fantasy novels, but I like them separately from my regular fiction), but works very effectively here. It allows Beloved to have many psychological lenses through which she can be interpreted without letting the story be set comfortably away from actual experience. Beloved, and Beloved, demands that we confront the real, continuing injustice of slavery. It doesn't let us hide behind long ago and far away.

Tell me, blog friends...what books especially moved you to think about a social justice issue you'd never really thought of before? Do you have any favorite books by black female authors that you'd like to recommend?

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