Books on Tap held a hybrid meeting on Thursday, February 3 to discuss Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved (she won the Pulitzer Prize the following year). Virginia has reckoned recently with how literature is and should be presented in schools (see this article for an example featuring Beloved – a book challenge dating back to 2013, and still making headlines). We decided to involve ourselves in the best way we know how – reading freely.
Beloved certainly makes you work hard. The language itself requires acclimation, but like all the best books written in dialect, jargon, imaginary language, or an unorthodox style, the longer we stayed within the world of the narration, the more taken with it we became. At one point, Morrison completely omits punctuation, and you can imagine how that affects the reader – after initial bewilderment (“is something wrong with my Kindle?”) the reader is swept away into a world of panic. No room to pause or take a breath, readers are tempted to blur through the prose, but forced to slow down to capture each word and turn of phrase. The grammar ultimately points the reader to the truths of this history as much as the syntax, as much as the plot.
You’ll also be working hard to stomach the evil absurdity of plantation life. Our group was most amazed to read about the mental toll slavery had on the enslaved. Many in our group discussed their childhood education was “whitewashed,” with more familiarity with the physical brutality. We certainly had less vivid renderings of how slavery stripped people of their identities and had the power to demolish their entire sense of self. Morrison writes about one particular confrontation between two lovers, Sethe and Paul D, in which Paul D says to Sethe, “you got two feet, Sethe, not four.” This indictment demands that Sethe see and remember her humanity – understandably, that’s something very, very difficult to do when you’ve suffered physical, emotional, and sexual trauma. Also especially difficult when your mothering instincts are so strong and striking, but the institution of slavery severs, as best it can, even the deepest, most intimate ties you might experience with your children. What does it mean to be a mother when your children do not belong to you?
One of our readers wondered what writing this book must have done to Morrison. Being so deep in with these characters, would she be able to escape unscathed? We talked about the reality of inherited generational trauma. We also pointed out that Denver, the character with the most growth, serves as a hopeful touchpoint in the novel, which provides just the right touch of balance.
One member of our group expressed a feeling of heartbreak that this story is so important, but because it is not the most accessible, easy-to-read book, a lot of readers probably put the book down. Another member said she “inching” towards understanding slavery for what it really was, and what slavery looks like today throughout the world. She thanked the book club for “making me do something I always should have done.”
For an unsparing view of slavery, read Beloved. For torture and survival, read Beloved. For a book that makes you work hard, read Beloved. For magical realism, mythical creatures and characters, ghosts and reincarnation, and “evil personified,” read Beloved. This is a moody, haunting, disturbing novel; complex in its characters and its style, this book is not easy – maybe that’s what makes it a good choice for studying closely in school.
Other titles to check out:
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
Other Toni Morrison titles
Maya Angelou titles
The Pieces I Am (Toni Morrison documentary)