S is for Song of Solomon
I picked up Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison at the supermarket when my sons were very young, probably five or six years after its publication. Standing at the checkout line, I read enough to be hooked. Long aware (in general) of the terrible injustices suffered by African Americans, this book was an astonishing revelation to me. Not only did it depict a lifestyle I’d never imagined, but Morrison proved a brilliant storyteller with characters who engaged me with their originality, prose that transformed ordinary moments to sublime experience, and a plot that revealed truths about who we are as Americans. This is a book worthy of giving up common pursuits to settle into reading. Everything else can wait while you are taken to communities in our country you may have never before noticed. While you are lured by characters evil, noble, or conflicted, language as much poetry as prose, and social injustice that will make you cringe.
It begins with a man in a blue cape standing atop Mercy Hospital in a town in Michigan, intending to fly across Lake Superior. Among the crowd waiting to witness his flight is Ruth, the daughter of the first black doctor in the city and pregnant, resting on the hospital steps, unable to be admitted because she is black. When the man who believes he can fly leaps to his death, Ruth is admitted to the hospital, and the first black child is born there. So begins the life of Milkman Dead, a child marked by one strange twist of fate after another. When at age four, Milkman finds he can’t fly any more than the man who leapt to his death, “he lost all interest in himself.”
Not really, but he lost the compass directing his best interests, and for many years Milkman is torn between choosing an easy life of criminal tendencies, and the respectable life to which he might aspire. He is loved by his mother and by his aunt Pilate, his father’s sister, a decent and honorable woman despite many hardships. Persuaded by rumors his father promotes, he and his best friend, Guitar, plan to steal the gold they are sure Pilate harbors in her house. When that proves to be false, Milkman goes off in search of his roots. One of his discoveries is that the legendary Solomon who flew back to Africa to escape slavery is in fact his own great-grandfather. Flight is a constant objective as a means of escaping injustice or discovering riches, and the eventual outcome of the book reflects this quest.
Pilate is the other predominate character in the story, her indomitable spirit a guide post and anchor to the very best of human endeavors. She remains stalwart after the theft of her strange green bundle, said to hold gold, and the death of her beloved but lovelorn granddaughter. People of lesser spirit would succumb to a bitter reclusion or angry aggression but Pilate remains an independent and kind woman who nurtures the greatness within all people. Including Milkman.
The story is rich with characters whose lives are unlike anyone I’d ever known, circumstances I couldn’t imagine, and metaphors and references that stretch a reader’s perception beyond the obvious surface connections. It opened my sheltered eyes to a culture I’d only glimpsed as an outsider. Morrison uses magic realism, local myths, children’s nursery rhymes, Biblical and classical tales, and songs as the means of conveying a multi-layered story. The plot doesn’t follow a traditional chronological order, yet it never left me stranded for explanation. Even the perverse characters generate sympathy for the human frailties that beckon their worst behaviors.
I won’t tell you the ending. In truth, I’ve told you very little of the story. Read the book and discover a journey within yourself as you follow the journeys of these memorable people in this remarkable landscape in a country said to offer equality to all people.
Song of Solomon was published in 1970 but its depiction of African Americans seeking their rightful place in a predominantly racist white society tragically compelling today. In some ways it’s a story of a young man coming of age, finding himself and establishing the adult he will become. In that sense, it’s one of the legions of similar stories, always interesting, but almost never as well written as Morrison’s book whose writing exponentially transcends ordinary.
Song of Solomon was the first Morrison book I read. I went on to read Sula, The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Tar Baby, and it’s because this book introduced me not only to a remarkable story but also to the monumental body of work of a commanding author that I chose it for my S selection.
Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. Morrison has also won the Pulitzer for Beloved in 1987 and was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
Other books that were serious contenders for S:
Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo
The Sand Pebbles by Robert Wise
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosney
Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
A Separate Peace by John Fowles
The Seventh Beggar by Pearl Abraham
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter by Peter Manseau
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
Sotah by Naomi Ragen
South of Broad by Pat Conroy
Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovksy,
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Alfred Knopf