'Home', by Toni Morrison
One of the most celebrated writers in American literary history, Toni Morrison, died yesterday and it seems like a good moment to reflect. Besides being a popular author who has sold millions of books globally, Morrison will be familiar to anyone who has taught or studied twentieth and twenty-first century American literature at University level. Morrison’s Sula (1973) was one of the first novels I encountered when I began my own studies some fifteen years ago and, being something unlike I’d ever read before, stands as a key moment, one that demonstrates how my university experiences broadened my horizons.
I’ve read or taught several books by Morrison over the years, but my most recent teaching experience was of her 2012 novel, Home. It is far from a bulky novel, less than 150 pages in total, but across those pages it tells the story of a veteran of the Korean War returning to Georgia in the 1950s.
At one level this novel explores what it means to be a survivor of the trauma of war. There is something suggestive in the fact that Morrison chooses to make Frank Money a survivor of the Korean War – too early for the radical social changes that accompanied Vietnam, but without the baggage of the ‘Good War’ narrative that often accompanies the Second World War. Frank Money’s military expedition takes place in a murky, poorly defined ‘police action’ that ended in an unsatisfying stalemate.
Though the war clearly changes Frank Money and is a formative experience, violence is everywhere in the South to which he returns. In the earliest pages of the novel, the infant Money and his sister witness people burying a black body, and Money holds his sister close because as the older male sibling he believes he can better cope with the situation – an attitude that anticipates much of the rest of the novel. One man who refuses to bow to a mob forcing black residents from their homes “was beaten to death with pipes and rifle butts and tied to the oldest magnolia tree in the county -- the one that grew in his own yard”. The violence that Money encounters on his return works to frustrate his recovery, as trauma piles up on top of trauma.
And yet, Morrison’s novel never becomes defeatist: nor does she abandon one of the defining characteristics of her work. Across decades, Morrison became known as one of the finest writer’s of black women’s experience, and so the ‘Home’ to which the title refers includes not only the process of coming home, but the other people there, fitting Morrison’s work in with a tradition that also includes famous work like Jayne Anne Phillips Machine Dreams (1984) or Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country (1985).
This novel clearly focuses more on male characters than some of Morrison’s more famous work, but women – and the inter-connectedness of the black male and female experience – are still important aspects of Home. Though not a character that occupies a great deal of space, Lily is an important character. In fleeting moments, she seems to offer Frank his best chance at recovering from the trauma of combat. Still more important, though, is that though Frank is initially attracted to her because of an idealised sense of vulnerability, she is far more of an active figure and reflects many of the positive values that are ascribed to the Frank who exists before he is ground down by the violence of warfare.
Still more central, though, is the character of Cee, who we encounter for the first time as the child that Frank Money wants to protect. Cee is presented as helpless in the early parts of the novel, largely due to malign social influences. Without the necessary parenting and armaments against racism Cee is buffeted by society, including accepting disturbing terrible experiments because the perpetrator is both white and a doctor. As the novel progresses, Cee demonstrates a development towards a more individualised self and an ability to fend for herself. It is only her strength, finally, that offers Frank a chance to heal.
Home received positive reviews on its release, though it is safe to say these reviews were less effusive than for other books by Morrison, and that it is unlikely to ever be the most widely read or studied of her novels. With that said, within its small number of pages we encounter characters and a story that demonstrate that Morrison retained a keen insight with startling relevance for the contemporary world into her eighties. The inter-connectedness of masculinity and femininity and how negative and limiting views of one will necessarily produce problematic responses in the other make this a vital text. Though it focuses on the past, this is a novel that we need, today.