Toni Morrison’s new novel ‘Home’ is where her heart is

Opinion

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Toni Morrison latest novel, Home, is, at its heart, the tale of a man enslaved (in mind, body, and spirit), on an uncertain journey to freedom. Set at the end of the Korean war — over eighty years after the ratification of the thirteenth amendment — Frank Money’s journey from the bloody ravages of war to the bigoted shores of 1950s America, and ultimately to his erstwhile hometown of Lotus, Georgia echoes, nonetheless, the slave narratives of early American literature, conveying a more figurative journey that perhaps all black Americans face in the pursuit of self-determination and self-acceptance.

When we meet Frank, he is plotting his escape from a mental hospital — a dismal “institution” indeed — after having served time in the Korean war. The cause of his internment remains a mystery. After he successfully decamps, we follow him from Portland to Chicago, relying on the kindness of strangers – along a network that feels very much akin to the underground railroad – on a crusade to reach his childhood home in Georgia to save his little sister, Cee, from an unknown fate (alluded to in a cryptic telegram which reads, “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry”). Along the way, we gain access to Frank’s deteriorating mental health.

Plagued by unpredictable episodes of violence and haunted by the shadows of warfare, a relationship he abandons to save his sister, and the figure of a flamboyantly dressed “little man in [a] pale blue zoot suit” — in keeping with Morrison’s predilection for the paranormal and vestiges of the ever present past (think Beloved) — the reader is confronted with the turmoil of post traumatic stress and, with more global significance, the trauma inflicted by the psychic violence of structural racism, making for a deeply interesting and provocative comparison.

In the aptly titled Home, which explores the layered meaning of the word and its associations with the formation of family, environment, and personal identity, Morrison reminds us that throughout much of American history, black people have been relegated to a narrow social space almost wholly defined by a ruling majority that — as architect — possesses the absolute power to destroy and/or deny that liminal security. Along Frank’s travels we learn of the exodus of a black community under threat of attack by the Klu Klux Klan, the stoning of a black couple for daring to order coffee at a roadside diner, Frank’s arbitrarily being stopped and frisked, and the prevailing anxiety amongst black Americans that “being outside [isn’t] necessary for legal or illegal disruption… [that] men with or without badges, but always with guns, could force you to move.” In view of recent headlines, it doesn’t take much to draw out the grotesque contemporary significance of these lines.

The concept of home in Home becomes a metaphor for the cultivation of an inner strength and dignity independent of external factors, shielded from the vicissitudes of an unjust society. In Morrison’s assessment, it seems that country can be difficult to navigate alone, and relies not only on our self acceptance, but also on the relationships and communities we build. It is only after Cee is healed by the round-the-clock care of the townswomen of Lotus, having endured a series of experimental procedures at the hands of a white doctor steeped in the school of eugenics, that she finds the inner strength to step outside of her brother’s well meaning, but gloomy, shadow, and take her life into her own hands.

Similarly, it is only when Frank meets Lilly that he ”[feels] like [he’s] come home.” In this sense, Morrison posits home as a concept dependent on our interpersonal relationships as we take shelter in the hearts and minds of our loved ones.

While Home paints an authentic picture of the black experience in America in the 1950s that indisputably reaches beyond its period setting thematically, as a novel it did not achieve the same transcendence. The issues explored are important — and are not limited to race (Morrison also skillfully delves into the fraught gender dynamics that play out between black men and women, contemplating what will take place when the couple that was stoned returns home, whether the husband will beat his wife for trying to help him and for being unable to protect her). However, they lack intimacy and, at times, feel more like articles in an encyclopedia of America’s discriminatory laws, customs, and social mores.

Perhaps it is Morrison’s brevity — it’s a very short read — that accounts for the narrow character development and prescriptive voice, lacking the time and space for the reader to live and breathe in the moment with her characters. In any case, there was a rushed quality to the storytelling that rendered their hopes, dreams, disappointments, and strivings remote and somewhat two-dimensional. Nonetheless, Morrison’s writing keeps the ship afloat, at once cinematic, poetic and profound.

Whatever the story lacks, it makes up for in the breadth of issues it manages to tackle (or otherwise reference). With Home, Morrison continues to beg the reader to reflect critically on notions of identity, race, gender and class, and, perhaps most importantly, to examine what me mean when we talk about freedom, and the role we play as a community and as individuals, hand and hand, and in a solitary way, in emancipating ourselves.

Chase is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist. He obtained his BA in English Literature at Boston University with a focus on race politics in Early American Lit. He has a background in human rights and has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the US and the UK, promoting social and economic justice.