Wednesday, February 9, 2011

But she had gone on a real trip, and now she was different

I'd expected to write a few posts about this book as I tried to take it all in. There is a lot to take in but I didn't want to stop reading. Or rather, I didn't want to stop reading and take time to write. I did have to put the book down a few times and gather my thoughts but I wasn't ready to write anything down yet.

Morrison never makes her work easy. Her characters never feel like caricatures. They are contradictions, at once beautiful and ugly, good and evil. Ambiguous. Sula takes place in a predominately black town in Ohio from the years 1919 - 1965. It's the story of girlhood friendship between Nel Wright and Sula Peace, of a tight-knit African-American community in a racist world, of the fear of death and change and of the ambiguity of love: a mother's love for her children, love between friends and love between lovers.

Sula isn't a long book (173 pages in my edition) but it takes time to make it through. At least after each chapter, and sometimes in the middle, I had to stop and digest what I'd read, what had happened. I read SparkNotes after each chapter to compare my thoughts to their analysis. Sometimes I came to the same conclusions, sometimes it showed me something new and sometimes I didn't agree. The beginning is my favorite part and I found myself stopping a lot early on. Why did Shadrack initiate and celebrate a National Suicide Day? Why did Helene smile at the racist train conductor and why did the black soldiers react to her the way they did? What did Sula's birthmark mean and how did that meaning change for different characters at different times? It isn't confusing to follow the story but just to understand what's and why it happened.

It's a beautiful book but a sad one. Not depressing, not melodramatic but sad. Most of the books I read are humorous. Sula is not funny. It does not temper moments with humor. The characters might laugh and dance (life isn't always awful) but there's nothing there for the reader to laugh at. It wouldn't suit the story if there was. I was going to say it would make the story as strong, but I don't think something being a comedy automatically means it's lightweight. The book's also not what I would consider quirky, like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. It's mostly a straightforward narrative with a lot hidden just below the surface.

There's one character in particular that I liked reading about, although I can't really describe her without spoilers so if you've read the story, or don't particularly care if know plot details ahead of time, read on.

*Spoilery spoilers*
I mentioned the characters are contradictions. Eva Peach, titular Sula's grandmother, is my favorite character. She's the strong and proud patriarch of the Peace household and resides over her family and a variety of boarders. Her husband BoyBoy left her with "$1.65, five eggs, three beets and no idea what or how to feel," (32). From these seemingly insurmountable circumstances Eva manages to keep her children alive and in turn keeping them alive is what keeps her alive. But she was never able to play with the children or express her love as any sort of affection because "there wasn't no time" (69).

This being said, Morrison seems almost incapable of creating a character the can be strong a simple. That's wrong. I believe Morrison is capable of creating a simple, two-dimensional character; she's just a better author than that. Eva Peace fiercely loves her three children, especially his son Plum. Plum comes home from war without hope but with a heroin addiction. Eva can't stand to watch her son destruct in this way so she holds him tight, rocks him for awhile and then douses him in kerosene and sets him on fire. Eva takes "I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it" very literally. Is this just an act of violence? Is it an act of love, saving him from his addiction? Is it selfish? A little of everything? See these are the complications Morrison throws at you.
*Spoilers over*

I'm glad Tony decided to challenge himself this month by reading books that are either by African-American authors or deal with the African-American experience and I'm glad he encouraged others to join him. I brought Sula with me with the hope that I would re-read it, but I don't know without this challenge if I would have ever gotten around to it. I can easily talk myself out of things.

Title quote from page 28

Morrison, Toni. Sula. Vintage, 1973.