With her father as her muse, Toni Morrison has created a memorable African American family with strong male characters in her novel The Song of Solomon. The novel opens with an insurance agent attempting to fly and therefore diving to his death off of Mercy (referred to as No Mercy) hospital in 1931. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel - a novel about flight and self discovery...mystical, triumphant, and disturbing.
Morrison's story centers around the Dead family composed of Macon (the abusive, yet savvy father), Ruth (the mother - a sad woman whose grief for her dead father defines her life), First Corinthians (a daughter both beautiful and educated who stumbles in her search for a lover), Magdalene called Lena (the second daughter), and finally Milkman (Macon's son). There are other important characters as part of the extended family - namely Pilate, Macon's free spirited sister who lives with her daughter Reba and Reba' daughter Hager.
There are many themes and much symbolism throughout the book, and I found myself marking passages and re-reading paragraphs to make sense of them. First and foremost, the novel is about discovery of one's roots, and the painful search for love. Milkman starts his life fighting to avoid murder at the hands of his father, and this theme continues through the book ending with Milkman's protracted journey from his home in Michigan to his grandparent's home in Virginia. Along the way, Milkman's views of life are challenged and his connection to his roots are strengthened. Another strong theme in the novel is that of racism and the struggle of blacks in American to overcome the history of slavery. Finally, the idea of taking flight and finding oneself is replayed over and over in the book. In one memorable scene, Milkman and his friend Guitar observe a white peacock. Milkman asks why the peacock struggles to fly and Guitar says:
"Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can't nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down." -From Song of Solomon, page 179-
I avoided reading a Morrison novel for a long time because I had heard that Morrison's books were often difficult reads with weighty themes. And this is certainly true. But despite this, I found myself looking forward to picking up the book. Morrison writes beautifully and is a superb storyteller. Although she is sometimes heavy handed with the symbolism, I didn't find it distracting from the story. I found myself caring deeply about the characters in Song of Solomon, even those who were not terribly likable.
Song of Solomon has been banned in the United States for "language degrading to blacks," violent imagery, sexually explicit and profane language and depictions of sexuality. It has been accused of promoting a "homosexual agenda." There is profanity, violence and sex in the novel, but it is not gratuitous.
Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for her body of work, and I can certainly see why based on this book alone. I will be reading more of Toni Morrison in the future.
Song of Solomon is highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.