Home By Toni Morrison Alfred A. Knopf. 147 pp. ($24)
Reviewed by Amy Driscoll
Mention Toni Morrison's name and the superlatives follow. Nobel Prize. Pulitzer Prize. This spring, she'll add Presidential Medal of Freedom winner to the list.
But in her new book, a slim volume titled simply Home that Morrison will discuss Friday night at the Free Library of Philadelphia, the power comes not from the world-famous author's name printed on the cover but from the story within. And what a story it is: a tale of postwar homecoming that captures the United States' chilling history of racism but also celebrates the courage of those strong enough to face it.
Frank Money, a black man emotionally damaged from the Korean War, returns to an America that still sees the color of his skin before anything else. Battling his internal demons, driving away anyone who tries to help him, Frank is on the edge of sanity — until he gets an urgent letter about his younger sister: "Come fast. She be dead if you tarry."
Cee is the closest person to his heart, the first person he ever felt responsible for and the only one who ever made him feel heroic, long ago in a grassy field when they were children. She's the only one who could get him to go back to Lotus, the unforgiving, isolated, hopeless Georgia town he left for the military and planned never to see again.
The letter propels him out of his paralytic misery. He sets off to find Cee, his mental fog lifting as he makes his way across a dangerous, racist countryside, finding danger and assistance from surprising quarters.
Morrison's sketches of black-white relations are sad and stark: Frank knows to sit at the back of the bus, but he must rely on strangers — the black porter on the train, a pastor who puts him up for a night — to give him names of rooming houses that won't turn him away and restaurants that will serve black people. Early in his journey, he winds up locked in a mental hospital, from which he escapes barefoot in the dead of winter.
The pastor warns him: "Listen here, you from Georgia and you been in a desegregated army and maybe you think up North is way different from down South. Don't believe it and don't count on it. Custom is just as real as law and can be just as dangerous."
All the while, Frank struggles to repress flashbacks to war and death that threaten his grip on reality. The memories plague him — red organs gushing out of a thin shell of skin, a severed arm tucked onto a stretcher with his now-dead friend. Only his fear for Cee keeps him heading toward Georgia.
The stories of Frank and Cee, told in a sort of call-and-response pattern, urge the reader on with a rhythm that becomes the beating heart of the tale. In the end, the two story lines come together in a moment that is damning and hopeful, a kick to the gut delivered along with a gaze to the heavens.
Morrison varies the timing of the story, too, moving from third person to first so that Frank can directly address an unnamed writer, as he does in this opening passage, discussing the unforgettable moment he witnessed with his sister in the grassy field:
"Since you're set on telling my story, whatever you think and whatever you write down, know this: I really forgot about the burial, I only remembered the horses. They were so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men."
Her writing emphasizes short, strong sentences and plain words that brim with life. A flowered skirt holds "a world's worth of color." Olive-green leaves of a sweet bay tree go "wild in the glow of a fat cherry-red sun." Exhausted parents show their children affection "like a razor — sharp, short and thin."
Despite Morrison's elevated status in the literary world — she wrote The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, among other critically acclaimed books — she writes without airs. In Home, even the most painful and devastating moments are told head-on, not prettified to make them more palatable nor heightened to create a stronger impression. She builds trust with the reader at every step; the events may be imagined, but Morrison is speaking her truth, and we believe her.
Here, as in her previous books, Morrison's characters carry their histories heavy on their backs, a burden that defines them and influences everything they do. The past, she says, is always with us. It can't be ignored or shunted aside because to be truly home in the present, we must confront the past.
Amy Driscoll is an editor at the Miami Herald, where this review originally appeared.