A black veteran returning from the Korean War gets word that his sister is in trouble: “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.”
He’s in trouble himself. He has seen his three best friends die in combat, and the shooting of a starving little girl torments his memory. The combination of post-traumatic stress and alcohol sometimes drives him around the bend.
When Toni Morrison’s novella “Home” opens, Frank Money is lying bound in a mental ward, plotting his escape. To get home from Seattle to Georgia he’ll have to rely on strangers. And as he finds along the way, there are always kind strangers to help.
One of the themes Morrison has often returned to is the power of black community. In “Home” the community that gets Frank Money back to Georgia is a kind of continually improvised Underground Railroad that has sprung up as a response to white viciousness.
The white presence in “Home” is as minimal -- and as evil -- as Morrison has ever rendered it. In a prologue set years before the story proper begins, when Frank and his younger sister, Cee, are still children, they watch the furtive disposal of a corpse:
“We saw them pull a body from a wheelbarrow and throw it into a hole already waiting.”
The corpse is black, the group getting rid of it white but anonymous: “We could not see the faces of the men doing the burying, only their trousers.” They’re like a ghostly incarnation of white malevolence.
Morrison saves the ghastly tale of their crime for the end of the book.
Practically the only other white man in the novel is a ghoulish Atlanta doctor Cee goes to work for, a “heavyweight Confederate” named Beauregard Scott.
“He is more than a doctor,” the semi-invalid Mrs. Scott tells Cee; “he is a scientist and conducts very important experiments.”
The girl is too naive and ignorant to pick up on the horror-movie overtones that the reader hears when the woman adds defensively, “He’s no Dr. Frankenstein.” Hence the letter Frank gets at the beginning, from a frightened servant in the doctor’s household.
Morrison has spent much of her career chronicling the injuries that black Americans have been dealt by white Americans, with the aim of giving the victims back some of the dignity they were robbed of. That’s her version of forging the conscience of her race.
The great tool she has called to her aid is her language -- a solemn, sensual, post-Faulknerian lament that drips beauty. But she doesn’t have Faulkner’s moral complexity; nor does she aim for it. Most of her books -- and “Home” is no exception -- are frankly didactic.
Her characters learn lessons (her own word), and we’re intended to learn alongside them. Half the time I’m reading Morrison, I’m floored by the glory of her hortatory prose. The other half I’m thinking, “Oh, come on.”
I’m sure no such doubts assailed the committee that awarded her the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel people adore morally committed writers. Morrison was perfect for them.
No one could say she isn’t justified in responding to the deep well of black pain by drawing on black evangelical traditions -- that’s what makes preachiness an option more available to African-American artists than to their white counterparts.
I can’t allay my own skepticism, but then I’m not in need of the balm she’s providing. And “Home” is clearly intended as balm. It ends with a cherry-red sunset, the long lament of her spiritual resolving in a major key.
“Home” is published by Knopf in the U.S. and Chatto & Windus in the U.K. (145 pages, $24, 12.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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