“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” – Toni Morrison
One of only a handful of Americans ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison has revolutionized the way novels are both written and read. She has never been afraid to tackle issues of race and gender, examining the way that society and the community interact with individuals. Her language is simple yet echoes with the African American oral tradition and she combines the historical and supernatural seamlessly.
I have read all but two of Toni Morrison’s novels and a number of her essays (Love is sitting on my To Read shelf and I’ll probably pick up Tar Baby when I go on my major book spree soon). Some of them I’ve had to read several times for class (Beloved is easily the perennial favorite for lit professors and there is no shortage of critical articles discussing it; I think I wound up using it for about four papers in my college career). They’re all so different, it’s hard to rank them but there are definitely some I preferred to others.
My favorite thing about Morrison is that she always manages to nail the endings. They force the reader to decide what happened, who bears responsibility for what happened, and what happens next. Does Sethe get out of bed? What really happened at the old convent? Does Macon Dead fall or fly?
Beloved: The Nobel Prize winner for 1987, Beloved is dedicated to the sixty million and more who were taken into and lived under slavery. Addressing issues of what it means to be free, what it is to be a mother, and how far is too far before the community should step in and help, Beloved was and still is, groundbreaking. Its cyclical narrative can be confusing for first time readers but each reading is easier than the last. While I understand why it won the Nobel Prize, I don’t think it is necessarily Morrison’s best novel (and it certainly isn’t my favorite). Though the film adaptation wasn’t the best (sorry Oprah), there is an interview with Toni Morrison about Beloved that is fantastic. I must have watched it four times for classes but I could sit and just listen to her speak for hours.
The Bluest Eye: In Morrison’s first novel, she explores the relationship between the African American and White American communities and how it affects the process of growing up in pre-WWII America. Specifically, she looks at definitions of beauty and self-image. The story is heart breaking but one of her best.
Jazz: Often grouped into a trilogy of sorts with Beloved and Paradise, Jazz explores Harlem at the height of jazz. Morrison somehow manages to capture the cadence of jazz music in her prose. The people of the city search to an order from chaos, but do they ever really succeed? Jazz fights with Paradise and A Mercy for my favorite Morrison novel.
A Mercy: Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy was published in 2008 (it came out during the last few weeks of my Morrison class so we ended up switching it into the syllabus at the last minute). What I like so much about this one is that even though it deals with race and slavery, it looks at the earliest days of slavery when it was determined more by class than by race. It also examines the interaction between the different faiths that made up the early American colonies. It was vastly different from what I’d read by Morrison before and I love that her work continues to evolve.
Paradise: The stories of several women from varying backgrounds who have found one another and created their own peaceful balance living with one another and the town that feels threatened by them are the basis for Paradise. I enjoy examining the way Morrison addresses the relationship between individuals and their communities, and Paradise fits right in with those themes.
Song of Solomon: One of Morrison’s only novels where the central figure is male, Song of Solomon incorporates African American legends with the questions of ancestry for the descendants of freed slaves. I had trouble with the central character of Macon Dead. I didn’t start to care about him or find him really intriguing until the second half of the novel and by then it was almost too late.
Sula: An examination of friendship through the years as well as the role society’s opinions play when making decisions about one’s self and one’s future, Sula takes place in the aftermath of World War I. Sula defies the expectations of her town while her best friend embraces them. The best part of Sula are the vivid characters. The background family characters and townspeople frequently stole the show (at least, in my opinion).