Book Review – Tar Baby by Toni Morrison

9781400033447_p0_v1_s192x300Every time I read a novel by Toni Morrison—or anything by Toni Morrison, really—I’m struck all over again by how quotable her style is. I find myself underlying massive passages. Her subjects always pierce deeply to the heart of race and gender relations and Tar Baby is no exception, exploring the concept of ignorance versus knowledge in relationships.

After retiring and selling off the family candy company, Valerian Street built an elaborate home on a Caribbean island where he spends his days in his green house. His wife, Margaret, periodically returns to their home in Philadelphia in the hopes of luring her husband back—since the Caribbean home is supposed to be a winter home. Sydney and Ondine, the couple’s longtime African-American servants, are often relegated to the role of referee when their employers get into arguments over whether or not their son, Michael, will or won’t visit for the holidays. Sydney and Ondine’s niece, Jadine, serves as a social secretary for Margaret while taking a break from her globetrotting, modeling career. The balance they’ve reached is drastically upset when Margaret returns to her room one night to find a runaway, thieving, and starving black man who calls himself Son hiding in her closet. Marched downstairs to the dining room, rather than calling for the authorities, a quite-drunk Valerian invites the man to stay, offending everyone.

So much of the story deals with ignorance—or innocence—versus knowledge, from which do we draw strength, and how. Throughout the first half of the novel, Valerian is quite confident in his position and authority as the wealthy white man, owner of the house and therefore in charge. He sees the concerns of his younger wife—whom he plucked from obscurity by marrying her when she was just a poor, ignorant teenager—as trivial. He believes his long-time servants genuinely adore him and trust his judgment implicitly. He believes he is as charming as people appear to think him. It is only after he invites Son to stay and the family’s traditional Christmas falls apart when their invited guests don’t show that Valerian becomes enlightened to everything that has gone on in his household behind the scenes, the things he’s chosen to stay blissfully ignorant of that he unwittingly stirred—and the knowledge cripples him.

A similar enlightenment occurs during the course of the romantic relationship that develops between Son and Jadine. Son’s arrival unsettles Jadine’s ideas about her place in the world as he challenges her concerning the means by which she acquired her education and by which her career is maintained, that she plays into the racial structures when she should be fighting against them, that she thinks she’s white and shuns her own race as a result. As their relationship runs its course, Jadine and Son move from a place of equality and agreement to one of conflict, as Son’s education of Jadine pushes her too far and backfires on him, causing him to see things in a way that can’t be unseen.

For the longest time, Tar Baby was the last of Morrison’s novels that I needed to read. Now that she’s published God Help the Child this year, I have a new last one to add to my To Read list.


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