A Toni Morrison read-through, part 1

A few weeks ago, a foundational belief of mine was shaken. In a casual discussion with a friend, I had mentioned that I will probably suggest a Toni Morrison novel for my book club when it was next my turn.

“I don’t know who that is,” they responded.

I was in disbelief, and, unable to filter myself, told them that they should probably feel bad about that, which after learning more about Morrison, they agreed with that sentiment.

This prompted me to ask other friends if they knew of Morrison, and the responses were usually one of two things: they know of her, but haven’t read any of her books or, simply, no.

It was the simple “no” that baffled me. To me, Toni Morrison is foundational. One of the greatest American writers, one of our country’s few modern Nobel Prize in Literature winners. Her books are taught in high school and college literature classes, and in the later part of her career she enjoyed an elder statesman status. Her death in 2019 prompted a widespread outpouring of grief reserved only for cultural figures who had reached the highest levels of public consciousness.

Believe me when I tell you, I was spiraling.

This spiral gave me space to analyze my own relationship with Morrison. My respect for her work always had dwarfed my actual engagement with it, having only read two of her novels, The Bluest Eye and Beloved, but being able to name the majority of her works. This, my own personal failing, is what prompted me to take on this reading project, where I would read each of Toni Morrison’s 11 novels in publication order.

I kicked this challenge off with her debut novel, 1970’s The Bluest Eye. One of her best known works, thanks to its inclusion in many a high school English curriculum, as well as its widespread popularity after being selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2000 (and eventually Jenna Bush-Hager’s club this past December), The Bluest Eye has endured over the years as one of the most powerful examinations of racism in America.

Narrated by Claudia MacTeer, and telling the story of her friend and current foster-sibling Pecola Breedlove, The Bluest Eye examines themes of Black girlhood and internalized racism, as Pecola’s one wish is to have blue eyes so that she can be seen as beautiful. This desire to conform to white beauty standards drives the book towards one of the most heartbreaking conclusions in literature, as the circumstances of Pecola’s home life and how she came to live with Claudia’s family are laid out in Morrison’s precise prose.

It’s also one of the clearest portraits of how deep and pervasive systemic racism is in our country. Morrison frames each chapter with a warped excerpt of a “Dick and Jane” story, evoking the pursuit of that kind of American dream, one that proliferated popular culture and life in the mid-20th century, but was unattainable for the characters in the novel, as well as most Black Americans. Invoking the hallmarks of white, middle class America, and contrasting them with the shame, self-loathing, and self-destruction of Morrison’s characters paints the insidiousness of racism in a way that is impossible for the reader to ignore.

The Bluest Eye is a lean novel, clocking in at just over 200 pages, though that speaks more to Morrison’s trademark economical storytelling rather than simplicity. Even her longest works tend to top out at around 300 pages, but are filled with fully realized characters and generous prose.

The Bluest Eye was one of the two novels of hers I had read previously, so I went in knowing where the story was headed. Over the years I have been burned by rereading books, never quite enjoying them as much the second time around. Unfortunately, my memories of my first reading of this novel dulled its impact on me ever so slightly this time around. I know many people who revisit this novel often, and talk about gleaning new insights each time, something I hope to do going forward.

After finishing The Bluest Eye, I dove headfirst into Morrison’s second novel, Sula. Telling the story of two childhood friends, Nel and the titular Sula, as they grow into young womanhood and diverge, Sula is a fascinating contrast with The Bluest Eye, as this novel spends a significant amount of time with its characters as young girls, but heads in a direction all its own. Sula hasn’t enjoyed the same cultural ubiquity as Morrison’s trinity of masterpieces, but still serves as a showcase for her immense talent.

This novel is an examination of motherhood and womanhood, and seems intent on tearing down the understood narratives of each. Both Nel and Sula grow up in homes without father figures, yet their homes are drastically different, to the point where the reader is left to wonder how the pair could be friends, and yet they are fiercely loyal. Nel’s upbringing is rigid and strict, leaving her inherently curious about the world around her, yet afraid to touch it. Sula, on the other hand, grows up with her mother and grandmother, both seen by the town as women of ill-repute, and each harboring deep resentment for the other.

A shared traumatic event in their childhood and each girl’s reaction to it illuminates the reader’s own misperceptions of the girls and their dualities. As they grow older, Nel marries and Sula moves away, only to return to their small town and disrupt the social contact that has kept it together, fatally injuring her friendship with Nel in the process.

The examination of the differences between maternal love and the love between two friends drives this book. Morrison writes the mother-child relationships in this novel with a quiet (though sometimes blatant) violence, and contrasts it with the deepness of Sula and Nel’s friendship. Morrison then subverts that illustration with the actions of her characters late in the novel, forcing the reader to rethink the love that has been established in this world.

Sula is a hard book to summarize, especially without spoiling much of what makes the novel so damn enjoyable. Reading it, ensnared in Morrison’s taught storytelling, I experienced that rare tickle of knowing I’d never read anything quite like it. Even during the book’s most heartbreaking moments, my enjoyment never wavered, and when I closed the novel for the final time having read its somber ending, I couldn’t help but smile.

Next up on my Toni Morrison read-through is Song of Solomon, widely regarded to be her masterpiece, followed by Tar Baby, a lesser-known title that is straddled by her two masterpieces. Stay tuned.