Toni Morrison’s latest novel, Home, uses numerous voices to chronicle a journey that is both lyrical and raw. Morrison, who has written over 10 novels and received countless honors, brings us into a landscape where the idea of home, or homecoming, is both haunting and terrifying: the Jim Crow south, after the Korean war, where two siblings must return to face their childhood home with the love that has sustained them through war, abandonment and the spiritual legacy of being “gutter” children.
What Frank, the shell-shocked Korean veteran, and his fragile sister Cee discover is that Lotus, the Georgia town that they both return to, houses a tough, loving redemption. A redemption that comes by complete and total surprise. And by hearing how this redemption works, we might have better eyes to see the tough love - and the surprising grace - that comes through our ordinary circumstances.
Morrison’s novels embody places in history that have mostly gone silent: the private lives of African Americans that span America’s history, lives that carry wounds that are both historical and deeply personal. That follow Morrison’s characters from slave ships to 1950s America, where Frank, at Home’s beginning, finds himself strapped to a hospital bed, drugged and unable to remember what brought him there. He can remember other details: the deep freeze of Korea, severed limbs buried in the snow, a young girl’s hand wrapped around a rotting orange. Frank remembers the loss of his friends, Mike and Stuff, childhood buddies who joined the army to get out of Lotus, and who died in his arms.
And he remembers the letter sent to him from home, the letter that is bringing him back to Georgia:
“Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.”
Frank escapes the hospital and pieces his way back to his sister, whose work for a white doctor put her at the mercy of his medical experiments, his “interest in wombs” leading him to construct “instruments to see further and further into them.”
As Frank travels home, the characters of both his and Cee’s life narrate their histories, their places in Lotus, their corruption and their slim visions: we hear from Lily, Frank’s angry ex-lover, who could not forgive Frank’s PTSD after months of silence and strange behaviors. We hear from Lenore, Frank and Cee’s bitter step-grandmother, who took in their family after riots forced them out of Texas and interrupted her peaceful life with scandal. We hear from Cee, who regrets leaving town after Frank enlists to marry the first man who shows interest in her.
And we hear from Frank himself, both as he travels and as he looks back on his life, perhaps as an old man, perhaps as a simple voice to warn the narrator: “You can keep on writing, but I think you ought to know what’s true.”
Morrison brings us through a landscape that seems to barrel its characters through unending violence. To see Frank “dutifully” take a seat in the back of a bus, or to watch a young African-American woman hold a bloody napkin to her nose, broken by a white restaurant owner at a train stop, is not so much outrageous as it is dulling - we feel the weight of racism as Frank assumes that he will be threatened on his train ride home, as Cee assumes that the white doctor, in his formal coat, has her best intentions in mind.
But we also feel the shock of healing that comes when Frank and Cee, surrounded by their town and its elderly women, are welcome with an affection that is brisk and deep. That forces them to tell the truth about themselves and to face the truths that are coming. To “get a permanent cure. The kind beyond human power.”
And what Frank and Cee both face at the novel’s end is a courageous bookend to a story that names, wounds and restores them both.
Morrison’s novel is an account of a painful, necessary pilgrimage, one that forces its characters to examine what they love and what they proclaim as true. It is an account that will burn you clean, and give you clearer eyes to see.
What Do You Think?
- Have you read Home?
- What common themes arise in Morrison’s novels?
- What is unique about her take on redemption?